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My latest pick: IOU, by Nancy Pickard
IOU is one of the Jenny Cain mystery series by this fabulous Kansas author. I have been reading her novels for about four or five years, and can’t wait to get my hands on some more. This was a re-read for me, but I appreciated this fine novel just as much the second (or is it third?) time around.
The main character, Jennifer Cain is the director of a charitable foundation in the city of Port Frederick (aka Poor Fred) Massachusetts. Poor Fred is a smallish city, where Jenny’s family once owned Cain Clams, a generations-old clam packing company and one of the town’s major employers. In this novel, the death of her mother is the catalyst for a chain of events that leads Jenny to re-examine virtually everything she knows about herself, her family, and the town she calls home. The story begins at the graveside, where Jenny is startled by a hard push, and a voice whispering “Forgive me. It was an accident. Forgive me.”
Confronted with the reality of her passing and baffled by the strange incident at the gravesite, Jenny yearns to know more about her mother, who had been institutionalized for virtually all of Jenny’s adult life. No one has ever adequately explained the reasons for her mother’s long decline into a state of catatonia. Not even her mother’s best friend will talk to her about it. Mrs. Cain was a woman who appeared to have been defined throughout her life by her relationships to others: she is the former WIFE of Jimmy Cain, the disgraced and self-exiled scion of the Cain Family business. She is the MOTHER of two daughters. She was the fragile child whose Catholic upbringing taught her that only good girls get to go to heaven, but who is denied burial in the Catholic section of the cemetery at the behest of the semi-retired priest of her parish – a man who baptized her and knew her for her entire life. As Jenny begins to dig into who her mother was in a search for why her mother became ill, she learns many things. Some are shocking, others are simply heartbreaking. Eventually her sleuthing leads an unknown assailant to make an attempt on her life that is made to look like a suicide attempt. Assisted by her police detective husband Geof, an undeterred Jenny keeps right on asking questions even as her reputation in Port Frederick is torn to shreds.
This novel is heart-wrenching for a lot of reasons. If you have read other Jenny Cain novels, you know the character as a tough, no-nonsense, very savvy woman - the epitome of the strong modern female. In this book, Jenny is fragile and grief-stricken. She is having what her mother’s friend tells her is “the Alzheimer’s of grief.” She spends much of the novel in a semi-twilight state of exhaustion, with nerves stretched to the breaking point. Her greatest fear is that she, too, is cracking up. She doesn’t want to end up like her mother. The author is unflinching in her examinations of grief, society’s perceptions of and attitudes toward mental illness, questioning one’s own sanity, and her portrayal of Jenny’s broken family life. More than once, she moved me to tears.
Gender roles and our perceptions of them are also a strong central theme of this book. One sub-plot involves an art exhibit that is funded by the Port Frederick Foundation, where Jenny is the director. She approved it over the objections of several of the (older) men on the Foundation’s board. The idea of this exhibit intrigued me, and I wondered if it was based on actual works of art. It features parodies of famous paintings of female nudes, in which the gender roles are reversed. Picture Manet’s “Luncheon on the Grass” only one where the reclining nude in the center is male, and the lascivious onlookers are female business executives. It provokes Jenny and her husband Geof to paroxysms of laughter, but others are not amused. A group calling itself MOAC has sent threatening letters and attempted to sabotage the exhibit. Jenny and Geof wonder if those threats may have escalated to the attempt on Jenny’s life.
The gender theme is also examined through another character in the book, Marjorie Earnshaw. Marj has been the nurse at Jenny’s doctor office for more than forty years. She wanted to be a doctor, but her parents didn’t think that was appropriate for a woman, so she went into nursing instead. She has carried the resentment of those frustrated ambitions for her whole life, and often tells patients that she is a better doctor than the man who employs her. She is also not above slipping Jenny a few Valium “to help her sleep” without the doctor’s knowledge. Both she and the doctor are questioned by Jenny in her search for information about her mom’s medical condition. Both express the opinion that it is better for Jenny to leave it alone.
One side effect of Jenny’s search for answers about her mom is the need to finally find out the reason for the demise of Cain Clams. She has long been told that her father’s carelessness and mismanagement are what ruined the firm and threw hundreds of Port Frederick workers out of their jobs. The shame and disgrace of that failure has followed Jenny and family ever since. She wonders if that pressure, along with her father’s infidelity, was part of what drove her mother to madness. Jenny has long believed that her job at the Foundation was a sort of charity offering to her from the members of the board, most of whom had done business with Cain Clams for decades. What she learns about the decline and fall of the family empire enlightens, infuriates, and eventually frees her from the shame and regret associated with her father’s failure.
I highly recommend this excellent author and her work, but with one small caveat. If you’re diving into the world of Jenny Cain for the first time, don’t start with this novel. Get to know the “real” Jenny and Geof and the people of Port Frederick a little bit first. This is one series where you will want to start at the beginning and read right on through. I particularly loved the novel Bum Steer – because most of the action takes place right here in Kansas. No matter where you start, this is a great series and Nancy Pickard is an author that Kansans can be proud to call our own.