One day in her kitchen, Lydia Wickett devises a harmless, medicinal-tasting concoction that her enterprising husband bottles under the moniker "Wickett¹s Remedy." Myla Goldberg's unconventional second novel, named for the potion, follows the (mis)fortunes of the loving Wicketts and the strange fate of their recipe as it is reincarnated by an unscrupulous businessman as the trendy "QD Soda." But there is nothing effervescent about Wickett's Remedy
, a beautifully written but pessimistic follow-up to Goldberg's bestselling debut, Bee Season
. Set mostly in working-class south Boston before and during the First World War, the novel is laden with illness and tragedy. Poor Lydia barely staggers onto her feet after her young husband's sudden death of pneumonia when her family is swirled into the Influenza epidemic of 1918--fascinatingly, horribly described by Goldberg. Death follows death, until Lydia, volunteering in the overwhelmed wards of the local hospital, discovers the profound intimacy of nursing: a "shared human undercurrent detectable only when the dictates of name, sex, and social standing were erased."
Lydia's experiences are annotated with marginal comments from the dead (literally marginal: the remarks are in a smaller type in the outside margins of the text). This "whispering undercurrent" rises into articulation when one of the dead feels an urge to comment on Lydia's memories. The statements of the dead can be funny or poignant (e.g. "Jefferson Carver, the Public Health Services first colored elevator operator and the car¹s fourth occupant, has become resigned to his omission from the partial memories of his white passengers."), but most often correct fine points in the narrative or complain about slights and oversights. The dead have a "shared desire: that in an unguarded moment, Our whisperings will broach a living ear." Sadly, they don't have much more to contribute than the kind of cantankerous ego-babble we expect from the living.
Although this chorus of the dead is a brave innovation, it fails Wickett¹s Remedy because the perspective of eternity lessens the force of Lydia's story. It would lessen anyone's story. It may be more realistic to view our sufferings and ambitions--our very personalities--as specks in a cosmic blur, but it puts a damper on our wilder emotions. --Regina Marler
From Publishers Weekly
The author of the bestselling Bee Season
returns with an accomplished but peculiarly tensionless historical novel that follows the shifting fortunes of a young Irish-American woman. Raised in tough turn-of-the-century South Boston, Lydia Kilkenny works as a shopgirl at a fancy downtown department store, where she meets shy, hypochondriacal medical student Henry Wickett. After a brief courtship, the two marry (Henry down, Lydia decidedly up) in 1914. Henry quits school to promote his eponymous remedy, whose putative healing powers have less to do with the tasty brew that Lydia concocts than with the personal letters that Henry pens to each buyer. After failing to pass the army physical as the U.S. enters WWI, Henry quickly, dramatically dies of influenza, and Lydia returns to Southie, where she watches friends, neighbors and her beloved brother die in the 1918 epidemic. A flu study that employs human subjects is being conducted on Boston Harbor's Gallups Island; lonely Lydia signs on as a nurse's assistant, and there finds a smidgen of hope and a chance at a happier future. A pastiche of other voices deepens her story: chapters close with snippets from contemporary newspapers, conversations among soldiers and documents revealing the surprising fate of Wickett's Remedy. And the dead offer margin commentary—by turns wistful, tender and corrective (and occasionally annoying). Yet as well-researched, polished and poignant as the book is, Goldberg never quite locks in her characters' mindsets, and sometimes seems adrift amid period detritus. While readers will admire Lydia, they may not feel they ever truly know her.
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