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In 'The Love She Left Behind,' Mourning Is No Gimmick

Of all the overdone tropes available in the LitFic Plot-O-Matic 9000, the Grown-Children-Return-For-Funeral-of-Parent (With Issues) button has been mashed so often that its light is burned out.

Think about how many times you've seen this setup used. A parent has done something terrible. He or she dies. The parent's adult offspring descend on their childhood home, or occasionally on hospitals or hospice care facilities, to attend the funeral and deal with the surreal banalities of death and its aftermath. They process stuff, drink beers outside with siblings (usually while swinging on their childhood play set), and generally become better people for having experienced this passive brush with mortality. By the time you reach the back cover, lessons have been learned. Everyone leaves, sad but healed. The end.

In Amanda Coe's new novel, The Love She Left Behind, a mother named Sara dies off-screen of stomach cancer. It took her quickly. Just a week or so between diagnosis and death. But the event draws her two estranged children, Nigel and Louise, down to the decaying mansion in Cornwall where she'd spent the past 35 years acting as lover and muse to Patrick, a once-famous playwright, for whom she'd left her husband and abandoned her children all those years ago.

So we're off to the thematic races, right? You know there'll be tears, tea (because this is a very British story, after all) and personal growth. Someone will realize that being a grown-up is hard and even grown-ups don't always make good choices.

Except ... no. Not counting the tea, that's not the way things work out at all. Coe is a seasoned writer. She's done books, TV, movies. She can recognize an overused and beaten-down plot from 100 yards off. How do I know this? Because in all of these cliché-humping stories, it's the funeral that tends to act as the centerpiece around which all the amends-making and swingset-drinking revolves. And yet in The Love She Left Behind the funeral is literally skipped over.

At the end of Chapter 1 we're driving there, in a town car, Nigel and Louise, Louise's moody daughter Holly, and Patrick all forced together in terrible, uncomfortable closeness (because they all hate each other — or if not "hate," exactly, then powerfully dislike). And at the beginning of Chapter 2, we're back at the house in Cornwall, mum reduced to ashes, Louise going through her closets and, in Nigel's estimation, probably also pocketing all the jewelry. Coe's best trick (which she deploys again and again) is either burying the tropes that make the home-for-a-funeral story so hackneyed, or turning them around and giving them a fresh and vicious edge.

Examples? My pleasure. Early on, there arrives on the doorstep of the disarrayed manse a journalism student named Mia come to interview Patrick for her master's thesis. She is young and pretty and energetic, and when she moves into the place — taking a temporary room that becomes a semipermanent room and a role as caretaker for Patrick — you can't help but think, Oh, here's the minx that will now seduce the aging playboy writer in order to steal his fortune.

That's what Nigel thinks. That's what Louise thinks. But then Coe fills Mia out with motivations that aren't nearly so cliché, makes it clear that there is no fortune (beyond the house, which everyone has eyes for — Mia most innocently), and makes Patrick impotent and interested only (OK, mostly) in Mia's company and her sense of aliveness.

And Patrick himself — a writer who'd been famous once, but has now sunk into alcoholism and unproductive misery — seems custom-built as A Character Who Can Change, but then just doesn't. He begins the story as a self-obsessed, narcissistic, angry, chain-smoking elitist drunk and ends it pretty much the same way.

For most of the book, there's an iron will to Coe's rejection of traditional dullness. But then the whole thing begins to sag as it comes into the homestretch. There's a plot concerning Louise's daughter (plus a late-arriving son) that feels tacked on to give her something to do, and Mia does an inexplicable (and infuriatingly unwarranted) psychological one-eighty, leaving the lessened novel to wobble and skid wildly across the finish line.

But for Sara's adult children nothing changes. There is death, there is paperwork, telephone psychics and irritable bowel syndrome. There's very little about the book that's soapy. Less that's maudlin. And even when the wheels start coming off, what remains in Coe's pared-down universe of mourning and resentment is a biting sense of the general awfulness of people under stress and the necessity of judging one person's bad choices against the bad choices being made by the people all around them.

And in the end, no one goes home feeling any better.

Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his newest book.

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