Homily Is Where the Heart Is

Let's imagine the apocalypse has come; our world is about to end. As the final human inhabitants of this planet, we need to think about what we will leave for those creatures who may come after us. Our mission should be to find some way to preserve Laura Hendrie's novel Remember Me (Henry Holt and Company) as a legacy.

Oh, sure, some will say we should leave historical or sociological texts, maybe even poetry or "classic" literature. But these goals are selfish. I suggest we choose the path of compassion. This book will soothe those who have found it by saying, "Don't cry for the loss of our civilization. You didn't miss much. Just look at what we were willing to pay $24 for . . ."

Rose Devonic is the protagonist of Remember Me, and the story is about her life in the tiny New Mexican town of Queduro. Since losing its mining industry, Queduro has become a summer stop for tourists looking to buy the embroidery the town is known for. Rose is a native and no stranger to tragedy. Her immediate family was killed by a giant wooden Indian when she was 16. The book picks up her story 13 years later. Rose has spent the years since the accident destitute, barely surviving as an embroiderer.

Many critics have effervesced about Hendrie's work, and there is no denying that this book is exceptional -- the only English-language novel of the past decade that might be more atrociously written is The Bridges of Madison County. This one seems like a nightmarish collaboration between Robert James Waller and Dr. John Gray.

Remember Me does not suffer from weak characterization -- rather, it is devoid of characterization. The characters are tired stereotypes of working-class people. There is the lonely widow who turns to gossip to get attention, the slow-witted mechanic, the drunk and ornery innkeeper, the overworked single mom with no time for her children, and the pretty young heroine whose tough exterior belies her vulnerabilities. This is a book about poor people written for rich people, and the prose is so cliché-ridden as to seem like parody. At one point, Hendrie says of Rose's love interest, ". . . every time she'd tried to pull herself up by the bootstraps, he'd been there promoting her as the poor little hapless victim." Rose herself is so poorly developed that she spends nearly the entire story (close to a year) in the same mood. You never get a sense of who she is, or why you should even care. The most interesting characters in the book are the two dogs.

In place of personality, Hendrie equips all the characters with a kind of adolescent narcissism that makes them wax philosophical at every opportunity. That wouldn't be so bad if they had anything original to say, but the proclamations are common notions presented as if they were new and revolutionary:

"It was part of you, and if you took what you needed from it, if you didn't run from it, in the end it made you stronger . . ."

"Maybe that's all there really is to happiness, not money or a big house or friends or even love, just knowing somebody out there is counting on you."

"That's how people survive, not by charity or pity but by knowing who to trust without having to ask."

"We didn't look at each other and didn't talk, but as it often happens when men and women do handwork together, the silence between us began to thicken and then suddenly there were all kinds of things going on in it."

"Maybe that's all a home is, just the place where you know what's needed."

These quotes are not standouts; they are typical. Equally hilarious examples can be found on almost every page.

Near the end of the book, Rose describes how she used to read to "erase memory . . . The first winter I lived with Birdie, I got through the Book of Knowledge, A through Z, in four and a half months, and when it was over I walked away without knowing a single new thing."

I know the feeling.

Laura Hendrie signs Remember Me at 7 p.m. Wednesday, September 22, at Borders Books & Music at Biltmore Fashion Park, 24th Street and Camelback, Suite 200. Admission is free. For details call 602-957-6660.