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Know the West

A life unwound


By Michelle Huneven
304 pages, hardcover: $25.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.

Patsy MacLemoore is a hard-partying 28-year-old who managed to earn a Ph.D. from Berkeley but drank herself out of the running for the most prestigious jobs, landing at a middling college in Pasadena, Calif. It's the spring of 1981 in Michelle Huneven's latest novel, Blame, when Patsy comes to in a jail cell. It's happened before, but this time is frighteningly different: She's charged with hitting and killing a mother and daughter in her own steep driveway, in the 1963 Mercedes she wasn't supposed to be driving even while sober. Horrified by the damage she's caused, the lives ruined, Patsy pleads guilty and is sentenced to four years in prison.

Sober and released early for good behavior -- she worked on a prison crew, battling wildfires -- Patsy settles into a replica of her former life: same location, same job, same friends, but all experienced through a prism of guilt and the puritanical self-discipline she's determined to maintain. Patsy's guilt remains the driving force behind everything she does. How could she ever have children, for example, when she killed someone else's child? She tiptoes through life, trying above all to do no more harm.

Huneven, a journalist and James Beard Award-winning food critic, is a nimble writer. Her characters are the sort that haunt you weeks later. In fact, some of the book's other characters are more vividly drawn than Patsy herself: There's Gilles, the young lover of Patsy's ex-boyfriend, Brice, who looks after her post-prison and provides a glimpse into gay life at the dawn of the AIDS era; Cal, Patsy's husband, who copes with his own losses by helping heal others; and Joey, Brice's niece, who delivers the news that upends Patsy's carefully rebuilt life.

And therein lies Blame's only real flaw. The big plot twist, the news the jacket copy calls a "fall-off-the-couch-with-surprise moment," seems at least somewhat obvious from the beginning. Still, Huneven lets events play out with just the right balance of melodrama and stoicism as Patsy sets about coping with a new reality. Blame is ultimately about the way choices stack on top of one another, each shaping the next until they become an entire life.