Counterpoint Press, 9/2002
ISBN: 1-58243-217-1
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Many things in Secondhand Smoke just never want to die. The house on Valence Street sits across from a cemetery. Rumor has it that dead feet can be seen sticking up from beneath the soil. Similarly, Ms. Friedmann finds immortality in family, in truth, and in their propensity to reappear unexpectedly.
         I don’t know Patty Friedmann and I wouldn’t presume to describe her, but I know her writing. I know that the way she carves a sentence gives you the sense that she’s always known how to do it. Secondhand Smoke, her fifth book, flows like cold water down a parched throat. Her readers are thirsty for this one, and they won’t be disappointed.
         The hardest part about writing is the fear of exposing one’s self. Secondhand Smoke reminds us that the best writing comes from that state of "nakedness." Patty Friedmann stands before us honestly and presents a fictional story that cannot help but to be true.
         Jerusha is the novel's main character. Cantankerous, uncouth, and audacious, she’s also no less endearing than the old lady we remember living on our block in our youth. She’s just lost her husband, but the emotion is hollow, and we recognize hers as a life that has been settled upon rather than chosen. Similarly, her surroundings bear the marks of accumulation rather than pride. Tired paintings, yellowed paint, and photos of children that have grown bittersweet with age scar the walls. Though she makes no apologies, we recognize in her a love that begs to be more than toxic and suffocating to its consumers. Jerusha speaks her mind because it’s the only way she knows to live. When her husband Woodrow lays dying, he asks her again, "Tell me why I should want to live?" Even then, she offers only the same exhausted words she has mustered before, nothing more tangible than the same stale secondhand smoke.
         Zib, Jerusha’s daughter, has managed to escape the small house on Valence Street, the stifling effects of her mother’s smoke, the agitation of living in a city that reminds her of everything she’s trying to forget. But we soon see that she’s escaped nothing at all. Her life in Jacksonville, Florida wallows in the same placating, humid air that she had tried to flee.
         She’s a free spirit in a way that we sense is unhealthy. She takes risks to elicit her mother's homogenous reaction, the one from which she is perpetually running. She fights off the sexual advances of her boss, but only in as much as she’s sure they’ll not disappear completely—she wants something in her life to be real. He façade only begins to fail when she is faced with the death of her best friend Angela, who was Jerusha's archenemy. Only then does she begin to see a softer side of herself; she can no longer ignore the emptiness therein. It is only then that she needs her mother’s embrace to survive the world.
         Jerusha’s son Wilson has found success, but not the variety that great men covet. His Ph.d. does nothing to allay the fact that his wife wants another man. To this, Wilson offers little more than a lukewarm response, one that he’s honed over the years. His ex-wife can no longer stand him and his mother has never seen him for who he is. But with the quietest of efforts, he does nothing more with his time than try to please them all. He’s made a life out of "doing the right thing"; just as quietly he faces the failure of his efforts.
         Wilson remembers growing up voiceless, unnoticed. He was the good kid, even when he was bad, and he was never favored by anyone. Now this educated man finds himself in middle age with absolutely nothing to say. Inside, a pocket of sadness resides where his words want to live.
         His mother burns her house down, but he doesn’t want to save her. And he isn’t prepared to find her sleeping on the streets. But because it’s the right thing, he brings her home, where she immediately incites yet more havoc in his already chaotic home. Despite his best efforts, the blocks tumble down. It is their nature.
         But for this family, fiction permits the pieces to connect. Jerusha finds meaning with the help of a young boy who understands her in a way for which she has always yearned. Zib finally gives herself permission to feel something other than hate. And Wilson begins to see that to make a difference in his life, he needs to be present in it.
         Secondhand Smoke isn’t saucy with southern pleasures. Instead, it’s a book about a blue-collar family that doesn’t know how to save itself. It’s a book about the individual's inability to leave the past behind. Secondhand Smoke does not seek life in fancy words and clever euphemisms. It tingles because it’s raw and true. And, after all, the best any writer can do is to give her readers a truth they can recognize.