Sub-genre: Literary Fiction / Humor
Date of Publication: June 4, 2019 (US)
Number of Pages: 212
When Jessica, a grieving widow, inherits an antique mall from her mother she also inherits the stallholders, an elderly, amoral, acquisitive, and paranoid collection.
When one of the vendors, a wily ex-con named Roxy, shoots her ex-husband, she calls on Jessica to help bury the body and soon Jessica is embroiled in cover-ups, lies, and misdirection. Into this mix comes Lizzie, Jessica’s late husband’s twelve-year-old daughter by his first marriage, who’s been dumped on Jessica’s doorstep by the child’s self-absorbed mother and it soon becomes apparent that Lizzie is as obsessed with material possessions as Jessica’s elderly tenants.
Why Stuff Matters is a compelling ode to possession, why people like things and the curious lengths they will go to keep them. Returning to her fictional Caprock, Waldo turns her wry wit on the lives of those afraid to let go.
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Jen Waldo’s latest novel, Why Stuff Matters, can be enjoyed on so many different levels. Set in Caprock, Texas the story focuses on an antique mall where the antics of the tenants will cause readers to smile while also bringing into focus the human condition and how people deal with aging, death, and abandonment.
Both the building and the vendors are old. Layers of dust literally coat the shelves and merchandise, while figuratively the same can be said for the people. They’re resistant to change of any kind and will lie, scheme, conspire, and even commit murder to maintain things as they are. That layer of grime not only describes their surroundings, but their lives. They suffer from any number of maladies with almost everyone affected by respiratory ailments because they refuse to clean their stalls or replace the rugs that are so old they’re filthy, bug infested, and moldy. Most of them are involved in some type of nefarious activity vice selling the merchandise in their stalls. In fact, they so over value the items that there is little possibility that a would be buyer will not go elsewhere to make the same purchase. Their connection is not to people but to inanimate objects that should long ago have been, sold, replaced, or junked. Why do they hold onto things that have no intrinsic value and forgo meaningful relationships? Perhaps because everyone eventually dies or moves on leaving them alone with the “stuff” they’ve collected… the sum total of their lives. They also refuse to consider what happens when they die. They don’t have wills or end-of-life designations; they leave that for others to sort out once they’re gone. Oh, they’ll split the merchandise or share equally in any money left behind by someone else because that’s just the way it’s always been done, but don’t ask them to consider any end-of-life planning for themselves. That requires an emotional attachment beyond just their possessions.
The person left to sort things out and deal with these cantankerous old folks is Jessica, a grieving widow who has inherited the antique mall when her mother died. Her passing is only a small part of her grief. Parents most certainly die eventually, but the sudden death of her husband and children in an automobile accident has left her with emotions that alter her sense of normalcy and cause her to be complicit in the questionable and criminal activity of her tenants. She is no longer the caring wife, mother, or school teacher that she was before the tragedy. That person is buried underneath overwhelming grief leaving her to normalize immorality. She goes about the day to day requirements of running the business and arbitrating the grievances of her vendors with a detached, no nonsense, matter of fact impatience, yet not only overlooks drug sales and other unscrupulous activities that she’s aware of, but helps dispose of two bodies that the pink-haired, gun-toting Roxie has dispatched over a collection of baseball cards. She’s numb to the murders and lies to the authorities with incredulous yet somehow plausible reasons for their disappearance. She’s lost everything that she’s ever loved and is indifferent to life itself. Can Jessica ever care for anyone or anything ever again? She’s about to find out when her husband’s ex-wife unceremoniously dumps her twelve year old daughter on Jessica’s doorstep.
Lizzie is the last thing Jessica needs at the moment. She’s been abandoned by a self-absorbed mother, leaving her to fend for herself at a time when she desperately needs a mother’s love and attention. After all, it was her father that also died in that crash. Lizzie needs parental guidance; the one thing that Jessica is unwilling to offer. To compensate, Lizzie begins accumulating stuff of her own. If it isn’t gifted by the vendors, she steals what she wants. She learns about sex by reading lusty pirate and cowboy romances, and takes ridiculous risks to her person by sifting through debris to see if there’s anything of value under the piles of rubble. She deludes herself that her mother is coming back to get her, while Jessica is left to house, clothe, feed and protect her with nothing more than a written consent to get medical treatment in an emergency. Lizzie is a manipulative screwed up teenager who is crying out for inclusion and belonging. She latches onto to Joe, a would be suitor to Jessica and the policeman investigating the missing persons. She also comes to Jessica’s aid when a threat endangers them both. Is there a permanent bond between these three that is in the offing? There’s certainly an evolution to their relationships, but don’t expect any definitive resolution in the end. I got the sense that everything will work out, but fittingly, the author leaves it up to each reader to decide.
Jen Waldo juxtaposes tragedy and comedy with aplomb. She writes with a wit that captures life’s absurdities and creates locales and characters that will remind you of other small towns and individuals you’ve known. Some scenes will cause readers to suspend disbelief, some will cause them to laugh, some to question why people do what they do. All will leave them thinking about the vagaries of life and what they might do under similar circumstances.