Mary Vensel White’s contemporary novel “The Qualities of Wood” is a story that leisurely captivated me. By this, I mean it grabbed hold of me little by little, as a summer day in the country often does, with a crisp quiet morning blending into a more intense and bold day. This novel becomes bolder, page by page, until it reaches its satisfying conclusion.
The essence of this story is the main character (Vivian Gardiner) and her relationship with her husband Nowell and their summer spent together at his deceased grandmother’s “abandoned house in the country.” The young couple is spending time cleaning up, sorting through, and generally getting this familial home ready for sale.
This foundation is the jumping off point for the author’s exploration of the themes of love, death, memories, and trust. Mary Vensel White, I believe, does an admirable job getting to the heart of these subjects. The strength of her story and of her writing is her confidence in investigating these themes.
Does she accomplish this perfectly? No. Sometimes trite dialog and the relating of mundane activities seem to get in the way of the story, but these are minor irritations, not something that takes away from the overall power of the novel. Vensel White gets to the heart of the idiosyncrasies of marital relationships, and actions (and words said or left unsaid) that define marriage and other relationships.
The story begins with Vivian reuniting with Nowell after a four week separation, wherein he went to his grandmother’s home first, she following later after working her job to bank a few more paychecks. The cast of characters that follows and interact with Vivian and Nowell as they work at the house represent the best and worst qualities of humankind.
To add to the drama of this story is the death of a teenage girl (Chanelle) and her body found in the woods behind Nowell’s grandmother’s home. This tragedy contributes to the intensity of the interactions between Vivian and Nowell and:
…their country neighbour, Mr. Stokes
…Katherine and Max Wilton, new friends from the town of Clement
… Mrs. Brodie, the dead teen’s mother
…Lonnie (Nowell’s brother) and Dot (Lonnie’s wife)
… The Sherriff
Combined, the interactions as concerns these characters imbue this novel with subtext, foreshadowing, and an ominous, secretive air that inspires what writers everywhere desire – page turning by their audience.
Moreover, Vivian’s short interactions with a road crew worker (the crew paving the road in front of the country home) add some sexual tension to the story. Palpable tension in this story also comes from the discussions, and sometimes lack thereof, concerning Nowell’s desire to have children, while Vivian is hesitant to make children a part of their life right now.
Mary Vensel White does a great job in showing her readers’ that relationships operate on many levels, and that relationships have different qualities, just as wood does – and is the inspiration for the novel’s title. Wood is prominent in the old furniture in the story, stored in the attic of the old home, and in the wooded area behind the country home – this wooded area a significant setting for what transpires in the story.
Nowell is a writer and he’s working on his second novel during his stay in the country. He writes somewhat secretly behind a makeshift sheet wall and seems distant from Vivian throughout much of the story. The reader senses something is eating at him; Vivian does; Lonnie does as well.
And always, there’s the death of Chanelle percolating under the surface of every scene, as well as the lingering presence of Nowell and Lonnie’s deceased father Sherman and his former dealings in the town of Clement – his secrets kept from his wife and his children.
To add substance to the story, Mary Vensel White does an excellent job of portraying Vivian’s youth. This is especially true regarding the character insight revealed when Vivian, as a young girl, gets lost in the woods (by accident, or on purpose?) and the fear this produces in her father as he searches for her. The author also conveys Vivian’s sometimes rebellious nature and how this hurt her father deeply. All of this adds to the dramatic tension and forward movement of the novel and its surprising and logical conclusion.
I give “The Qualities of Wood” by Mary Vensel White four stars out of five. It’s a compelling story that’s a study of human behavior with its attendant dreams, hopes, successes, and failures. The theme of trust is a central facet of this story: the bond of trust between Vivian and Nowell and what harms this trust; the trust between Nowell and Lonnie; the trust between the brothers’ and their father; the trust between Vivian and her parents; and ultimately the trust that’s required in an altruistic society where so much depends on the actions of others- involving others.