Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl
In my years as a college professor at a small, private liberal arts college, administration, faculty, and staff were in loco parentis; it was understood that the professor took on some of the functions and responsibilities of a parent. It’s a curious status, however, with interesting premises both psychological and sociological since students, adolescents a short time away from adulthood, often suffer that syllabus of errors.
I can recall students who wished to talk about matters of the heart which in some office privacy has to be approached with wisdom and grace. A young woman student of mine, then, approaches her marriage with wonderment that it was about to happen, albeit she thought it would never happen. But it did and it lasted a short eighteen months, ceasing with the rationale that, yes, they were intellectual equals but there was a lack of passion, which was something she could not abide, and this in her early twenties. A second marriage followed, and then a third, and all before turning thirty. One might conclude that my in loco parentis fact sheet was sorely misplaced, my wisdom and grace come to naught. What’s lived is lived, however, and what’s woven is woven. One’s accounting of one’s life is often a syllabus of errors.
I mention this not to be negative or condemnatory but to note some of the “currents” of the time, continuing modernism especially, a coinage which rationalizes pardoning doses of human behavior according to one’s likes and dislikes in a spirit of complete emancipation but with no rest to the soul.
With no rest to the soul, which could be a subtitle to The Stone Necklace.
I say that because Carla Damron is a social worker and a fiction writer and her new novel is a catalog of a syllabus of errors. Both occupations, one might say, give her special empathy and insight into that syllabus of errors fraught in our fragile human condition. The Stone Necklace is just such a novel, braiding together the literary and sociological “case studies” of a grieving widow and her daughter, a nurse struggling with addiction, a troubled homeless man, and a young mother, all of whom own lives that in the novel’s course intersect.
The novel opens with Lena Hasting’s story. She’s a suburban wife and mother, married to Mitch. Before climbing into his Lexus to go to work, he drapes his jacket over the headrest and loosens his tie. He feels hot, and something is searing him from the inside, pressure swelling “like a billows in his chest . . . . with the force of a hundred mule kicks.” Grayness fogs his eyes, his foot slips, and the Lexus impacts a silver van driven by Tonya Ladson.
Two unlikely protagonists thus emerge: Lena and Tonya, both with conflicted hearts and souls.
Lena has suffered, both from breast cancer and a doomed affair with an art teacher, which are followed by a homecoming to a teenaged daughter, Becca, with a secret eating disorder.
As I mentioned above, a family “case study,” about everdayness, about the nooks and crannies and crevices easily found in the everyday lives of everyday people.
It begins again with Mitch tucking his shirt into his trousers and donning his “red” Republican tie. He polishes his shoes, smooths an errant eyebrow, checks his phone and hopes that a strip mall deal for his real estate business will cover recent losses. Downstairs, Lena and her daughter, Becca, continue their stalemate, the itchy silence interrupted by the sound of spoons scraping the sides of their cereal bowls.
Outside, though, there’s a handyman of sorts, Joe, homeless, who has come to do some yardwork for Mitch. Joe has his own demons, voices, and worries.
A few months before, Joe had left for Mitch a small speckly stone on a tombstone in the cemetery accompanying their church. It had over the days found its way into Mitch’s pocket every morning: either a talisman or, since his luck had been atrocious lately, “more like a worry stone.”
The social issues of the Hastings family are more complicated after the fact of Mitch’s death. Finances are tight, the real estate business is in jeopardy, and Tonya Ladson, the young mother in the same accident, is confronting her own issues.
She’s been listening to CDs on how to control her own destiny, to overcome that syllabus of errors, especially after the accident; her young son Byron has suffered a broken collar bone and she has a butterfly bruise on her face. Her marriage to John has become sterile. Finances are an issue complicated by his sarcasm, and her work at a law office is fraught with personal tensions; daily her life is filled with anxieties, work, home, marriage, Byron, destiny, unfairness: “The Hastings home was twelve blocks from hers but may as well have been in a different country. She and John would never belong there. John’s career was not on this path. Maybe he had the drive once but too many disappointments had eroded his ambition. Now it seemed like he worked for the beer at the end of his day rather than their future.”
How, then, to pay the bills?
Take the Hastingses to court, litigate, treat the entire tragedy as an opportunity for financial gain, pay the VISA bills, buy a new car, a new roof, new carpet, get money from the wreck, or so argues the paralegal they consult. A new chance and up and over that syllabus of errors.
Chapter-by-chapter, Damron’s novel traces the intersection of these characters. Sandy Albright is a nurse at Mercy General Hospital. She’s back at work after a twelve-week suspension. Jittery because her fourteen-year career as a nurse may be over. She’s fighting addiction, alcohol and pills, Oxycontin tablets taken from the pharmacy cart. “Her nerves quivered out of her, stretching for relief. One pill to get her through reentry.”
As it is, however, braid dead Mitch Hastings is on her floor and through her work on this hospital floor she meets Lena and her daughter Becca. Sandy is empathetic, riding “the waves of grief with the family.” Her heart is open, especially to suffering Becca.
How, then, the novel ponders, do we become better versions of ourselves, overcoming that syllabus of errors? Is such even possible?
It’s a convoluted journey about which Damron writes with wisdom and grace. And it’s founded on the truth that we all ache for a safe place to go even if that safe place is a churchyard cemetery plot where homeless Joe sleeps and daily tries to stay alive.
So the novel is a novel of a variety of singular crises which could be suffered alone unless one believes that the only life worth living is one in which we stand by one another. A suburban family, after all, is merely one thread in a complete braid and that braid shares the same kinds of misfortunes as does a homeless man or a nurse struggling with her addictions, or a woman who does not add misfortune to another family already suffering misfortune.
This is a fine novel suggesting that compassion and surrender lead us to understand our true selves. The writing is sensitive and deft and tells us that living will thrive when the worry stone becomes the stone necklace, something to be worn outwardly and not hidden in a pocket to be thumbed secretly.