Review of “Absolution” by Alice McDermott – exploring the complexities of white saviorism.
In Alice McDermott’s poignant and skillfully crafted ninth novel, Absolution, Barbie dolls unexpectedly serve as a catalyst for exploring the white savior complex and social dynamics among American wives during the Vietnam War. Set in 1960s Saigon, the newest member of a group of expat wives is the meek and traditional Patricia, led by the charismatic Charlene, who resembles a combination of Regina George and Betty Draper. Charlene is a chain-smoking force with a sharp tongue, alluring charm, and a hidden addiction to tranquilizers. Easily influenced Patricia joins in on Charlene’s charitable fundraiser, which involves selling miniature versions of the Vietnamese national garment, áo dài, crafted with remarkable detail by their talented house girl, Ly.
The beginning of the novel focuses heavily on Charlene’s project nicknamed “Saigon Barbie”, which highlights the performative and shallow nature of the expat socialite lifestyle. This lifestyle values power and image above all else, often disregarding the labor and subservience of local women. Patricia, a character in the novel, refers to this lifestyle as a “cocoon”, where American dependents live in a bubble of self-importance and national pride. The Vietnamese house girls are described as charming and benign, silently moving through the rooms. However, outside of this bubble, Patricia is confronted with the harsh reality of begging children with napalm burns, but her husband reminds her not to give them money. This dehumanizing mindset allows Patricia and her social circle to turn a blind eye to the atrocities happening nearby.
Ann Patchett praised Absolution as a “moral masterpiece”. The novel takes the form of letters and cleverly incorporates historical details and concise observations, such as “Jackie in her black veil” and “a garden-party smile”. The story follows an older Patricia and Rainey, the daughter of Charlene, as they correspond 60 years after their time in Vietnam. It is a confession and a journey towards finding absolution as Patricia reflects on the past.
The perspective of American wives is often overlooked, and their limited and narrow views as white saviors become clear in hindsight. Patricia also reevaluates her role as a supportive wife to her husband, which includes not only being presentable but also a mother. She tragically suffers multiple miscarriages, highlighting her unfulfilled desire for motherhood and societal pressure to have children. When Patricia first meets Rainey as a child, she immediately feels a connection to her, seeing more similarities between them than with Rainey’s calculating and manipulative mother.
Charlene, the enigmatic and manipulative quasi-altruist of Absolution, captivates readers with her conflicting morals and enigma that persists until the end. Patricia, who sees Charlene as a dominating rival and bully, believes that Charlene targets those who are easily manipulated, especially those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. However, Patricia also longs for Charlene’s approval and the two form a bond when Charlene comforts Patricia after a miscarriage. The story is also haunted by Patricia’s previous friendship with Stella, who grappled with the guilt of her family’s history of slavery and became an activist for civil rights.
The last third of the book changes to Rainey’s point of view, but it is not as engaging. As an adult, Rainey reflects on her conflicted feelings towards her late, controlling mother. Her love for her mother was primarily physical: the familiar touch of her fingers, the color of her eyes, the coarse feel of her hair, the definition of muscle in her leg, and the graceful arch of her small feet. These are the memories that come to mind when she claims to love her mother.
The novel Absolution effectively portrays the intricate inner lives of white American women during the Vietnam war and the lasting impact of their time abroad. However, it fails to give depth or complexity to its Vietnamese characters, particularly Ly, who is reduced to a supporting role and never given the opportunity to share her own thoughts and experiences. Despite playing a crucial role in the plot, Ly remains a mere footnote, overshadowed by the larger story. McDermott skillfully captures the complexities of social dynamics and the malleability of memory, making it a masterclass in point of view and character development. It’s unfortunate that the novel does not offer a glimpse into the rich and complex interior life of its Vietnamese characters, such as Ly, who is referred to by her American employers as “Lily.”