The question of whether help is consequential, or merely the feel-good actions of the well-meaning but misguided is at the heart of Absolution, a quietly provocative novel by Alice McDermott (What About the Baby?; The Ninth Hour; Someone). Most of this book is a long missive that a now-elderly American woman named Patricia writes to a younger woman named Rainey about their time in Saigon in 1962 and 1963, when Rainey was a little girl. Back then, Patricia was a 23-year-old from Yonkers, N.Y., recently married, who acts as a "helpmeet" to her husband, Peter, "a young engineer on loan to the navy." At a party, she meets Charlene, Rainey's mother and the wife of an oil company executive. Charlene recruits Patricia in a series of schemes intended to bring cheer to the Vietnamese. One involves selling Saigon Barbies, Barbie dolls for which Charlene's housekeeper makes doll-sized áo dàis, the colorful national costume of Vietnam.
That's one of the many memories Patricia shares with Rainey, who has sought out Patricia to learn more about that era, and to find out what Patricia remembers about Dominic, a young soldier they both knew. The issue of which gestures constitute consequential support is only one of the many themes McDermott explores. Others include clashes between Catholics and Protestants, and the subservient roles women of the 1960s were expected to play. As one character puts it, "self-sacrifice is never really selfless. It's often quite selfish." The veracity of that statement receives enlightening examination in this smart and memorable work. --Michael Magras, freelance book reviewer