May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes is a book I picked up without it being recommended to me by anyone I knew and without my reading anything about the book. I was in a supermarket and I had a load of points on my loyalty card at the end of the year and I always spend them on books.
I read the back cover copy and thought the premise was interesting and I added it to my pile.
The book opens at Thanksgiving, a time intended to celebrate with family, but in many cases it can be a time of frustration when family tensions arise. Here is where we find Harry, the only one not participating in the current “discussion” at the table. Frustrated, he leaves the table, beginning to clear away the remnants of the meal, which he takes to the kitchen where his brother’s wife, Jane, is washing dishes. There, Jane kisses Harry.
This kiss is the catalyst for a firestorm of occurrences that left me stunned in places, incredulous in others. Strangely enough, Harry lets these occurrences happen all around him without truly seeming to be a participant in his own life. It was a bit—okay, more than a bit—frustrating to read about a protagonist who was so passive and unwilling or unable to make decisions that could impact his life.
My goal in reviews is to not give spoilers, so I’ll do my best to avoid that. But it’s challenging to do so with Homes’ book. Each character is so broken, so removed from the realities of life, that their actions to me felt surreal. Even so, it was like reading a nighttime soap opera in which you wondered, “What could possibly happen next?”
Harry’s brother George is a quintessential bully, who deals out cutting comments and lashes out with his fists instead of being able to communicate in any reasonable way. Sadly, the majority of men in this book fell into a similar category. (Except Harry, that is.) Their ways of thinking and doing were uncomfortable for me to read, only able to show jealousy and anger and violence, was so off putting.
Even when George commits a heinous crime, Harry is the one who seems to receive much of the hatred that should be directed at George. Harry bears the weight of all of this anger passively for the most part, but even when he expresses his frustration, he isn’t heard and doesn’t get the satisfaction of having his feeling acknowledged. To my horror, George gets off relatively lightly in this book and several people seem to want to help him return to normalcy.
Harry delves into online sex as an escape, meeting strangers for encounters. One thing I did appreciate in this book was that women were portrayed as having control of their sexuality and being active, willing participants in sex without any stigmas attached to it. Even so, I couldn’t relate to most of the women in the book because they all seemed to make decisions I found mystifying. I mean, who would let their recently orphaned nephew be taken to another state by a stranger?
Harry, a historian, also has a fascination with Richard Nixon, a seemingly unusual hero for such a passive person. Harry’s obsession with him was to me a way of showing Harry as loving and admiring the “traditional male” and continually justifying it, even though he was being told it was history no one wanted to remember.
Finally, Harry seems to grow into a more active character when he takes on the role of caregiver, first for his niece and nephew, then for a local orphan, then for an aging couple. I found it interesting that Harry finds his happiness not in adopting the role of traditional male, but in taking on a role traditionally viewed as a female one.
The only characters in the book who seemed to be reasonable at all were the three children, who even though they all experience tragedy, are able to be resilient and rebuild their world in a way that not only suits them, but makes me feel like the world may be in good hands in the future.
Although it may not seem like it, I enjoyed the book. I wanted to know the fate of these characters. It read like a head on collision and I felt like a roadside observer once the paramedics have arrived. I can’t do anything but watch.