You might not want to know Matt King in real life, but he makes one hell
of a narrator for Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel 'The Descendants'. He's
not a rat or a bore by any means, but just a low-key attorney who
has spent much of his life and all of his marriage with his nose
to the grindstone, proving that he is worthy of the huge inheritance
he has been tasked with managing. Let's just say, he's not the kind
of guy who would stand out at a party, unless you were privy to his
inner dialogue. It's Matt King's inner voice as he relates his journey
of discovery, waiting for his wife to die, that drives 'The Descendants',
and turns a rather milquetoast man into a compulsively readable character.
He's funny as hell and he's not going to take it anymore.
It won’t take any reader long to discover that Hemmings is a brilliant
writer, capable of a seemingly non-stop series of wise and witty observations
of the awful truth. King starts the novel standing over his wife's comatose
body. Joanie King was, no is beautiful, but those hot looks aren't going
to help her now. Matt gets the word that there's no hope, and according
to the living will left behind by his obviously willful wife, they're
going to shut her off momentarily.
Matt also gets two daughters in the bargain, the children he never really
had to deal with because he was busy winning bread. Scottie is ten years
old and precociously weird, given to talking about sex in a manner that
would alarm any adult who wasn't dealing with a comatose wife. Alex is
eighteen years old and normal, not in the best manner. She had a drug
problem, but now avers that she's all better. Of course that's a bit
of a hard sell when King has to pick her up at school, only to find her
shit-faced drunk hitting golf balls on an athletic field.
Still, King is an all-pro muddler, and he'll muddle through this crisis
one task at a time. But even his professional muddling instincts are
challenged when it proves that Joanie was having an affair at the time
of her death. Heck, she might have been heading for a divorce. It's not
like King doesn't have enough to deal with. Squabbling relatives await
his decision over what to do with their land. Convert it to cash by selling
to WalMart or keep it in the family? Everybody wants the money. It appears
that perhaps even his soon-to-be late wife had plans as well. Watch Matt
King muddle. Listen to Kaui Hart Hemmings sing.
'The Descendants' has all the stuff of life. The characters are all utterly
realistic, with nobody deployed only in service of the plot. Hemmings
catches all the poetry of our most minor interactions without effort,
and King's rueful learning process is consistently hilarious. Hemmings
deals extensively in "the truth hurts" humor, pointing out
with clarity what most of us would prefer to politely ignore in our lives.
She uses the deep history of Hawaii to create a timeless feel. In many
ways, 'The Descendants' is itself a descendant, the thoroughly modern
version of the classic British novel of manners. Send Jane Austen to
the Big Island and Hemmings might conceivably have some competition.
Hemmings' observations encompass not just the family but the culture
as well. The uncomfortable truths she excavates about the King family
prove to be pretty universal
While Hemmings ample and generous sense of humor dominates much of the
novel, her visions of the characters are nonetheless true. This results
in a book that earns its poignant moments with a truly enjoyable assurance.
We're cheering Matt King as he bumbles his way towards a torrent of decisions.
And we're cheering Hemmings as well, who proves herself to be a writer
of great talent. 'The Descendants' is funny enough to appeal to any reader
who knows the truth shall set you free–to laugh at yourself. .