I really enjoyed reading The Used World, but I can’t say that I would recommend it across the board. Here’s the thing. Haven Kimmel also wrote two memoirs, A Girl Named Zippy and She Got Up Off the Couch, and they were pretty popular in the early 2000s, gaining a number of fans for Kimmel. Well, Kimmel also wrote four novels (and a couple kids’ books) and, understandably, her writing in different genres is very different. Her memoirs tend to the light, funny, Americana side of things. So when a fan of those reads one of her novels, they often say, “Heck no.” Not every person who enjoys humorous, witty memoir will also enjoy theosophical, philosophical, left-exploring, gritty, highly-academic, “flowery” (not my word)-written, somewhat unconventional literary fiction. All of Kimmel’s novels would fit under this very specific heading and I suppose it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
Also, I have to admit that her novels aren’t watertight. And yet, I love them.
The Used World is the story of three women, one in her twenties, one about 40, and one in her sixties. They all work (one of them the owner) at The Used World antiques market. Rebecca grew up the shining star of a Pentecostal cult run by her dad, but left the church after her mother died and has been sharing a roof but no love with her father, ever since. In her experimentation, she found herself a loser of a boyfriend and wound up pregnant and alone. Claudia is so tall that she is often misidentified as a man, and has lived her whole life in the safe space of her childhood home, with her parents, until they had died. A few years after her mother’s death, she has a sister whose life she finds depressing and alien but a new pastor who is helping her navigate her feelings about both religion and life when suddenly Hazel starts messing with her, forcing on her new responsibilities she never dreamed of. Hazel is the owner, a woman of a complicated past that we learn about in flashbacks and sometimes in dreams (which is part of her vibe because she is also prophetic in a purely non-religious sense). Sure, she’s messing with her employees’ lives (and her vagrant sisters’), but she’s doing it because of her own past: she knows more than she’s letting on and she wants something different for her friends than she was ever allowed to have—love and family.
I can see the truth in what Kimmel’s critics complain about with The Used World. There is probably too much religion in her books, much beyond just plot and character development, too much pontificating. The male characters in The Used World leave much to be desired without giving us much to go on in the one positive, male character. The Used World is a little confusing, at times. And the ending—so far all Kimmel’s novel endings—come really suddenly and aren’t completely wrapped up, leaving questions. Unfortunately, The Used World was the worst of her books, here, in that the reader isn’t quite sure what has happened and how everything ties together and, indeed, quite what the future holds for our characters. And yes, there are things included in The Used World that didn’t really need to be there, like Hazel’s dream life or, in my opinion, two sisters who drain the resources of one of the main characters, two moms who someone couldn’t quite leave, two dads who were domineering and toxic, two men who are pursuing the gals in the flashback story. In the end, all these characters play a role in the shebang, but it was confusing and, in some cases, felt overcommunicated. (Also a bummer because its not a super-popular book, so it’s difficult to find other people talking about what they think happened so I’m still not really 100%…)
But, as in so many of my reviews, I have now spoken ill of something that I really appreciate. I can repeat what I have said about Kimmel’s writing before: it is clear, insightful, and beautiful. She paints a picture, plunges to the depths of her characters, goes to the tough places, catches you off guard with her phrasing and her description. Admittedly, her writing is my kind of writing, and it’s actually very similar to what I often write, my own voice. But subjectively, I think that if you are a literary fiction person, there is likely an admiration that you could have for A Used World. And more than her other novels, it is geared towards plot and towards storylines weaving together and even exposing answers to mysteries you didn’t even realize were there. I regret to inform you that Kimmel seems to have a shortcoming in romance development, but I still am able to somewhat celebrate her endings, even if she could have made her romances a lot more believable and inevitable with some more tension and time (or scenes).
I think this is my favorite of the “loose” trilogy of The Solace of Leaving Early, Something Rising (Light and Swift) and The Used World. My hesitation is in Kimmel’s presentation of Christianity, which is always a major theme of her work. In this one, as a Christian reader, I felt a wee bit defensive. And I also think it’s unfair not to say a word in the book’s summary about The Used World being chock-full of queer relationships (which, I have to agree with one critic I read, seems a little unlikely given the setting).
I thought it was great. Enjoyed. Picked up speed as it went along, as well.
“But she knew for certain that women free of fathers speak one way and they make a world that tastes of summer every day, and when the men come home after winning the war–or even if they don’t come home–the shutters close, the lipstick goes on, and it is winter, again” (p18).
“Someone should have pointed out to Rebekah that it’s the summit of foolishness to feel pride for what you lack. Someone might have mentioned that there comes a day, and not long into life, when you’ll need all the strength you can get; when the woman who makes it across the prairie and saves her children turns out to be taller than Jesus by a foot and a half” (p30).
“What has happened to me? she said aloud, and watched the door Peter didn’t open” (p34).
“‘There are lots of ways to talk about, to think about the Resurrection,’ Amos said, ‘and all kinds of ways around the damage of our childhood religion'” (p169).
“‘Children,’ Red said, lighting a cigarette. ‘It don’t matter if they’re good or bad, they break your heart every time'” (p185).
“No one had ever said to her–and it pained her to realize that she included Ludie and Betram in this failure–no one had told her that the brand-new, perfect, everyday world was hers, was Claudia’s as much as it was anyone’s” (p204).
“Amazing to Hazel how we all arrive in a bloody fog but soon enough look like nothing but love” (p213).
“That’s where we get the Jesus I find more attractive; the radical overturning the money changers’ tables, the man who, in fact, turned everything upside down, the Jesus Who is not on the side of any empire or principality, but Who is concerned with outsides and sinners and the sick” (p228).
“‘You always did have a critical spirit, Claudia.’ / ‘I don’t think criticizing a fast food empire is a reflection of my spirit, Millie'” (p229).
“They spent Christmas Day, like a bonus check or a tax return, while at the sterile Hunnicutt Clinic shoes were always worn; sleeping was a private activity conducted only at night, in a bedroom; and everything was hoarded–money and joy alike” (p235).
“If there is any such thing as that sort of love, as opposed to the perfectly obvious and real love between parents and children, between friends, this ain’t it, Finn, and you damn well know it” (p239).
“She told me to pretend, from the moment I woke up each day, that I only had one thing to do, just one. First it was brush my teeth. And when that was done I’d have just one more thing to do” (p246).
“Now I’ll just say this: the world is probably divided, like glass-half-full types, between those who, when faced with salvation, revisit the scene and imagine they weren’t saved. And the others, who weren’t saved, and revisit the scene and make it right” (p302).