Book Review: The Solace of Leaving Early

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I suppose one of the reasons Haven Kimmel isn’t a super-famous author is because she backed out of the limelight on purpose at the height of her authorial ascension. But maybe that’s not quite right. It seems that A Girl Named Zippy, her first published book and a memoir which I will review in a few days, was the height of her popularity even before she ducked out. But how can this be? I mean, A Girl Named Zippy is cute, clever, and interesting, but I am always, always blown away by Kimmel’s writing in the literary fiction department. Re-reading The Solace of Leaving Early made me wonder if Kimmel wasn’t just too ahead of her time.

The Solace of Leaving Early is a love story of sorts. (In a TV interview, Kimmel called it a “typical romance,” and I see her point, but a “typical romance” reader isn’t likely to find too much familiarity here.) Langston suddenly drops out of grad school at the eleven-and-nine-tenths hour and returns home to the population-3000 town of Haddington, Indiana. Amos has been minister here or there, but is having an existential crisis following the loss of a Haddington congregant who he inappropriately had feelings for. There is a dark thing that has just happened in town, but Langston—brittle, defensive, self-absorbed, and rigid—can’t take one more thing and so she chooses to ignore the truth until it shows up as flesh and blood.

I can sort of feel the flaws in this book, like it’s not always realistic, bordering on far-fetched. The main characters are exasperating, though I do think this is totally intentional here and Kimmel’s real task is getting the reader to have some sympathy despite Langston’s and Amos’s major faults. (For me, she managed it.) I mean, Kimmel actually pulled off a stuck-up, self-absorbed academic because Kimmel is actually that academic and smart herself (though, from what I gathered at a couple readings decades ago, not stuck-up or self-absorbed). In that sense, the characters are so realistic—we’ve seen them in graduate programs—but Kimmel packages that up, splatters it all over the page, reveals it as a brokenness (a way of hiding that can sometimes last a lifetime) and then slowly excavates her couple.

So maybe I can’t find anything really negative to say about The Solace of Leaving Early. Okay. One thing: I wish Kimmel had added approximately three more developing scenes with the protagonists, together, specifically one more negative (to keep ratcheting the tension) and two positive (to build the electricity). I don’t think the final scenes had quite enough support from our understanding of the characters’ history. Just a few more interactions would have done it. We know that time is passing and that Langston and Amos are seeing each other some, but we need to witness a little more. I guess it boils down to this: I have some empathy for the main two critiques this book gets online: one, that the pacing is off—it drags along for a while and then speeds up and then wraps up with head-spinning finality (which is basically what I was just talking about) leaving many complaining they don’t buy the ending because it came on too fast and underdeveloped;

two, there is a whole lotta religion and philosophy and it’s in a very particular (and high-thinking, highly-educated) vein. Personally, the second part I just chalk up to part of Langston’s and Amos’s personalities. I don’t agree with much of their theologizing and philosophizing and I don’t think anyone is supposed to: this is just what these two characters are thinking and believing at this time and its meant to disclose their shortcomings as much as their intellectual and spiritual strengths. No reason to suddenly assume the author is giving us a sermon; it’s just what the protagonists would sermonize (and do sermonize) about.

But really, I loved this book. Definitely it is literary fiction. It also takes place in the nineties and was published in 2002, but like I said before, it feels like it would do better both commercially and with awards if it were released now (or in the past several years). It just has a voice and style that I think might be more appreciated by the modern reader. Not that someone didn’t appreciate it in 2002. It was fairly well-received and it couldn’t have been too many years before I read it and then anything else Kimmel wrote. On Goodreads, at some point, I gave it four stars, but that might be because I rarely (at least then) gave anything five stars. I also could have been annoyed at the pacing or the sudden ending or even by the lack of real faith in our star preacher.

The writing is not only shiningly clear, it has moments of imagery genius and the kind of beauty that causes you to inhale sharply and hold your breath. This is a claim that can be made on a line-by-line basis, but I also thought that some of the structure of the book was literary genius, as well. Whole scenes had a mini-structure, too, and almost a mini-story, that caused me to pause in admiration. I liked the book, I liked especially the peripheral characters like the mom, but I liked best how this book is written. Kimmel is always introspective, if nothing else, and we get plenty of wry observation of life here, even well beyond the small town. There’s also several lifetimes of suffering and brokenness in the storyline, and the book is suffused with both pathos and a calm, insistent hope which occasionally comes out as magic, more often as humanity and a well-drawn character. There is an interesting tension built into the story two. You could fill a book with what Langston doesn’t know and Kimmel does it: we cotton on to things well before we really get to see the truth through Langston’s eyes, and there are some interesting things done with this.

If you like either literary fiction or upscale (so like high fahlutin’ “regular” novels), I want to suggest that now that it’s 2022, go back and give Kimmel’s works a read. You could start with The Solace of Leaving Early. It is her first novel and one that I really enjoyed reading.

Trigger warnings: physical, mental, and spiritual abuse, violence, mental illness, some of this involving children.

QUOTES:

“What he really wanted to say was: have you felt this? this phantom life streaking like a phosphorescent hound at the edges of your ruin?” (p40).

“All around her people participated in occupations they neither advocated nor condemned” (p43).

“’But you can’t ever live in the place you dream about, the town you long for. You can’t go there…” (p63).

“It’s her losses, Langston, that’s what we’re left with. That’s why she’s so, I don’t know. Hatchetlike” (p70).

“’Why? Why is this happening to me?’ And you know what his answer was? He looked at me as if he couldn’t imagine how I had missed it. ‘Gravity,’ he said. ‘Gravity’” (p75).

“Already today he had lost more than an hour of the afternoon, just dropped it, his body completely still, his heart beating without any consent from him” (p88).

“Profit alone certainly would not have motivated him to function every day” (p102).

“The doctor told me I was pregnant and I thought, ‘Ah, so that’s what I’m doing now’” (p104).

“Because a marriage isn’t a marriage until it’s over, he thought, until the couple looked back, years later, at the moment they wed and said, ‘Oh, that’s what really happened that day’” (p110).

“AnnaLee’s argument being that if Nan could manage to die, Langston could probably afford to watch” (p122).

“’I’ve come to believe the marriage vows should include, in the ‘Will you love him, honor him, etc.’ section, a simple question, ’Will you love him when he stands in the way of your heart’s deepest desire?’ or ‘Will you love him when the fact of him absolutely ruins your joy?’”

“There were thin people and fat people, and no place he lived escaped the ironclad rule of social work or social ministry: if you can imagine it, it’s happening in your town” (p135).

“…from Kafka: ‘A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us’” (p145).

“…nostalgia being a very specific manifestation of grief…” (p185).

“There is more in heaven and on earth, Immaculata. If I could be innocent of history, and were presented with two notions, Nazis or a visitation from Mary, I know which one would seem less likely” (p204).

“The dead return, oh yes they do. They come in dreams, and in fits of memory so potent they can double a grown man, but that wasn’t the same thing as an apparition” (p232).

“I wish memory were a more steady, more physical artifact. It’s just a breeze, or a scent barely detected and fading” (p233).

“I truly believe that people who never have children, or who never love a child, are doomed to a sort of foolishness, because it can’t be described or explained, that love” (p248).

“…the moment that he realized that she was the last woman he would ever love; that every storm between them would he a confection, that their bed would be his grave” (p273).

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