Monday, June 2, 2014

A Review of "Caretakers" [by Tabitha King]

When last we visited the fictional realms of Tabitha King, it was for the purposes of reviewing Small World.  My thoughts on that novel (her first) were that it had some merit but did not really work.  The science fiction elements sat beside the psychological and emotional elements rather poorly, and the end result was an uncomfortable mix of goofiness and seriousness.
It's been about seven months since I wrote that review, and during that time, I sort of began to dread the prospect of reading another Tabitha King novel.
Let me explain.
I tend toward being opinionated.  If I don't like something, and find myself writing about that something, the odds are good that I'll give you the full force of my displeasure.  If I think a book sucks, I'll tell you so, with examples.
I didn't think Small World sucked, but neither did I think it was particularly good, and I have to admit that I read that novel more out of a sense of duty to my Stephen King fandom than anything else.  In and of itself, that is perhaps not a bad thing; I did the same with the first books I read by Joe Hill, Owen King, and even Kelly Braffet (Owen's wife), and the end result was that I loved all of them.  I did not love Small World.  I liked it, but in a way that made me wonder if I didn't actually dislike it.  Did I like it, or had I tricked myself into thinking I liked it simply because I did not want to find myself saying negative things about a novel written by Stephen King's wife?
The more I thought about it, the more of a possibility that latter option seemed.
All of which means that if I had read Small World partially out of a sense of duty, then I would later read her second novel, Caretakers, wholly out of that same sense of duty.
Looking to squeeze in a short novel prior to the release of Mr. Mercedes, I looked around my bookcases, and my eye eventually landed on Caretakers.  Less than 300 pages; entirely manageable in the week I had left before the new (Stephen) King novel came out.  But I initially quailed from it; and I knew why: I expected not to like it, and did not want to write a review saying as much.  (You might reasonably, at this point, wonder why I wouldn't simply opt to not write a review.  Good point.  The reason that isn't an option is that it would invalidate the reason[s] I'm writing this blog.  It's just that simple.  And this blog is important to me, so that option wasn't an option at all.)
I decided to just bite the bullet and get it out of the way.

All of the above preamble was designed to get us to this point:

I loved Caretakers.
I got about a third of the way into it, breathed a sigh of relief, and found that suddenly, somewhat unexpectedly, I was genuinely a Tabitha King fan.  Will that continue to be the case with her subsequent novels, when I get to them?  We'll see, but if Caretakers is what she was capable of by her second novel, then I suspect that by her fifth, sixth, seventh, I'll be even more hooked.
Your mileage may vary.
It should go without saying, but I'll say it anyways: Tabitha's work is really nothing at all like her husband's.  Why should it be?  Hell, I'd be disappointed if it was.  So if you are considering reading Caretakers because you expect it to be like something Stephen King would write, let me assure you that you will be disappointed.  Sure, on the surface there might be a few areas of overlap: the novel is set in rural Maine, and has a rich cast of characters; it was written in English and was published on paper.  Otherwise, forget that other King; he is not present here (save in the novel's dedication).
So, if this is -- as it should be -- resolutely a work which represents its own author and not some other author who simply happens to live in the same house, what does that really mean?  Well, to me, Small World read like a novel that began as an excuse to write about a core group of characters, but became burdened with a marketable concept that pushed King out of what I now perceive (based, admittedly, on merely a two-book sampling) to be her comfort zone as a writer.  I now begin to perceive Small World as an attempt to create a bestseller; King's strengths are on display there, but they are done no favors by combining them with a high-concept genre conceit.  
Caretakers is devoid of such confusion; it is simply a character piece, albeit one with plenty of twists in the plot, most of which are achieved via a time-shifting structure that might alienate some readers, but which thrilled me. 
I've just annoyed myself. 
By using the phrase "simply a character piece," I've implied that what King has done here is simple.  It isn't.  I've also implied that this mode of fiction is inherently lesser than other, more worthy styles of writing.  You know, the kind that involve haunted hotels or rabid dogs or whatever.  I certainly do not mean to imply that.  And if you're wondering why I don't just edit my words to reflect that, well, it's a fair question.  Answer: because it suits me not to edit it.
Before we proceed, allow me to give you the opportunity to stop reading.  Allow me give you the opportunity to go into reading Caretakers with as little knowledge of it as I had.  I knew almost literally nothing about the novel when I sat down to read it; I had not even read the novel's jacket description.  I've talked before about how I enjoy going into a book (or movie, or television show) as free of expectation as possible.  It doesn't happen often: we live in an era where being presold on a story is a near-certainty for people who spend time online.
So when I find myself in a position to consume a book blank-minded about its contents, I tend to find that refreshing.  When the experience turns out to be a rewarding one, as this one did, then I am loath to ruin that experience for others (i.e., my readers, who are few but are seemingly growing in number, and are important to me regardless of the size of the rollcall).  My readers, of course, may care about such things less than I do.  If so, it's all good.  But for those who do care, this is your cue: if you want to read Caretakers with a minimum of knowledge about its contents, jump ship now.
Everyone else, grab your children by the hand and follow me.
I won't tell you too too much about the plot of Caretakers, but a rough idea of what it's about seems in order.  The book, which begins in 1982 (it was published in '83, the same year as the setting of Halt and Catch Fire, the pilot episode of which just aired last night, says I for the sake of posterity), focuses on two main characters: Joe Nevers, a professional handyman and caretaker of vacation homes, and Torie Christopher, who owns one of those homes.  The setting is Nodd's Ridge, a fictional town in Maine.  As the novel opens, Joe is in a local shop making a purchase, and the shopkeep is angrily talking about how Torie has drunkenly driven her Cadillac into his truck, damaging it.  Joe, unaware his employer is in town, silently chastises the shopkeep for his indiscretion and his bad language, and then goes to the Christopher place to see how bad the damage is.  What he finds there is that Torie is badly ill with cancer; she has maybe half a year of life left in her, and has come back to her summer home for the express purpose of dying.  And she doesn't intend on waiting around for death to come find her; she plans to go find it, via pill.
The novel's structure is perhaps its most notable element.  King employs an extensive series of flashbacks to fill in who these two people are, and why they matter to each other.  The flashbacks do not occur in chronological order, and occasionally there are references in one to something that has happened for the characters, but which we, the readers, have not read about yet.  This may frustrate some readers.  But rest assured that King will give you the information you need; she has not been careless in terms of how she has laid things out.  So if you encounter a reference that puzzles you -- such as when one character apologizes to another for his behavior at a wedding -- don't take your lack of knowledge for a misstep on the novel's part; it is, instead, a deliberate choice, one which will pay off later in the book.
By structuring the novel in this way, King is able to keep us in a state of experiencing her characters from an unusual standpoint.  Caretakers is a mystery novel of sorts, one in which human motivations are the mystery.  We may know each other, but knowing each other really means only that we understand our own reactions; we don't -- maybe can't -- truly know other people.  Except, one might argue, in a novel, where we can, thanks to the magic of narrative point of view, know other "people" nearly as well as we know ourselves.  In Caretakers, King's structure helps to both preserve the mysteries of others at certain points, and reveal the answers behind those mysteries at others.  The same result could theoretically have been achieved in a chronologically-told manner; but this changes the emphasis, and also reminds us that we do not live our lives in a chronological manner.  We bounce around in time as surely as that guy on Doctor Who does.  We don't have a TARDIS; we have our brains, our memories ... and within them, we are hard-pressed to stay in a single place for very long.
I'm not sure whether King intended that sort of association with Caretakers, but it was what I got out of reading it, and I think it is a big part of what connected me to the characters so strongly.  The rest of that connection is due to King's skill at depicting the characters, who come off as fully-realized, cantankerous, frustrating folk who are just as fun to spend time with in a fictional setting as they would (probably) be annoying to spend time with in the real world.  Torie herself reminds me of the sort of female character Larry McMurtry was writing at around the time of Terms of Endearment and Somebody's Darling.  (The McMurtry comparison is only partially valid, to be honest, but my range of references is somewhat small, so I've got to use what's at my disposal; and anyways, I'm always happy to be able to mention McMurtry.)
The novel is split into two sections, one of which is told almost entirely from Joe's point of view, the other from Torie's.  Each chapter -- with one exception -- is titled with a date (e.g., "Fall, 1956") and begins in the time period referenced there, but once the business of the past is dealt with, the perspective bounces back to the 1982 timeframe, generally for the remainder of the chapter.  The first time this happened, I was slightly thrown by it, not entirely sure what was happening.  And in one early bit, I assumed something as a result of the juxtaposition of two different scenes that I'm guessing King did not intend for me to assume.  So the argument could be made that in a couple of instances, the structure is damaging.  However, once these early roadbumps are in the rearview mirror, I think the structure works beautifully, and train the reader to respond to them accordingly.
King also manages to keep the flashbacks from detracting from the forward momentum of the 1982 story.  Without giving too much away, let me say that there is definitely a story to what's going on in 1982; it does not consist merely of an old man talking to a slightly-less-old woman about her terminal cancer.  That's the beginning of it, but it's not the entirety of it by a damn sight.  And as that plot becomes more complicated and tense, it becomes more and more compelling; there are times when King breaks away from it, and waiting too long to find out what happens next would be maddening.  King wisely avoids spending too much time in the past when this is the case.  She breaks away long enough to tantalize, but rarely (if ever) long enough to frustrate.
As for the flashbacks, they contain much of the real meat of the story.  King bounces us around from one era to the next to a former one and back again, and as we proceed we learn more and more about Torie and Joe and their various husbands, wives, children, and other relations; just when you think there is nothing left to reveal, there's another revelation.  When a few of them landed, I felt like I'd been walloped with a sack of potatoes.
So, what else is there to say about Caretakers?  Plenty.  But for now, I'm content to not say any of it.  I'll make a fuller exploration of the novel the subject of some future revisit, which I can say without hesitation will happen someday; I enjoyed this novel enough that I could easily have finished it, turned back to the first page, and begun reading it again.  I restricted myself to skimming it, but even then, I could see that there was plenty of it that would play in a richer and more resonant way the second time through.  If any of you have read the novel and want to discuss it, hit the comments, and we'll discuss it at whatever length you wish.

Otherwise, I think I've done what I came here to do today.
I'll leave you with a look at one of my favorite scenes of the novel.  In it, Joe is paying an unannounced visit at the Christopher home in 1953.  When he gets there and knocks on the door, it swings open, so he walks inside to check that everything is alright.  He finds that everyone -- "everyone" in this case meaning Torie, her senile mother-in-law, and her first child, Tommy -- is outside, in the back yard.

At the bottom of the steps was a garden.  It was more an exotic jungle than a proper garden.  Flowers, herbs, and vegetables had escaped the beds and gone wild.  Directly in line with him was a thicket of tomato plants, burdened with an extravagance of fruit.  In the middle of them, having found some small patch to stand her ground against the untamed plants, Torie stooped over the green and musky mass.  She had gathered her skirt in one hand, the way Joe Nevers remembered his mother gathering her apron, to form a catchall.  She was filling it with tomatoes.  The sun behind her shone through her hair in a red corona, and through the slip she had exposed in lifting her skirt.  She was luminously happy.

Torie turns and finds Joe there unexpectedly, and he, embarrassed to be put in the position of inadvertently embarrassing her, flees the scene.

Bewildered by his own rage, he fled homeward to the Ridge, taking with him, like a seed, the dream of Torie illumined by a red sun, that recurred over and over, nights without number, through a quarter century of his life and hers.

You are either the kind of person who believes that such moments can and do happen (and that when they do they hit you like an electrical shockwave) or you are the kind of person who believes such moments are hokum engineered by poets and dreamers.  I'm the former.  For all the good it has done me (not much), I certainly am, and so I found myself hit pretty hard by this novel.  If it sounds like you might be in the same camp, I recommend you invest in a copy and see how it works on you.  If, on the other hand, you fit more snugly in the latter of those two camps, then I don't know that you would get a lot out of this novel.
Your loss, bub.  This is strong stuff, and King's advancement in quality between her first and second novels now has me keenly anticipating her third, The Trap.

Caretakers author photo

I'm not sure when that review will happen.  Before the end of the year, hopefully, but that will simply have to happen or not happen as it will.
Before then, hot things are afoot at The Truth Inside The Lie, including the inevitable review of Mr. Mercedes.  That novel is out tomorrow, and I've got a day's worth of reading planned.
Something tells me, though, that I might have a hard time shaking Caretakers all the way out of my brain while I'm reading it.  This one feels like it's going to stick around for a while.
And that is fine by me.


  1. Thanks Bryant I will check it out. I stopped reading after the we're walking part, but I get that it was just a character exploration fiction novel?
    Great cover too. And hilarious 80s hair author photo!

    1. Yes, that photo could only have been taken in the '80s, no doubt.

  2. This sounds like a great read. I generally enjoy novels that employ this sort of time-slip structure. (It was my favorite part of Lost seasons 1 and 2, for example.)

    I may skip Small World and make that my first foray into Tabitha King's work. I've read somewhere - possibly here - that she re-uses or references characters and settings from one novel to the next. Did anyone or setting from Small World appear here?

    1. "I may skip Small World and make that..."

      make *this, not that. (grumble grumble - damn comment-edit - grumble harumph)

    2. Heh.

      Nosir, if there were any "Small World" references in "Caretakers," they slipped by me unnoticed.

      "Caretakers" is the first of five (I think) novels that are all set in the town of Nodd's Ridge, and evidently those books, taken as a whole, do indeed have multiple points of commonality. I gathered as much from reading "The Writing Family of Stephen King," but as to specifics, I don't know much yet.

      The "Lost" comparison is interesting. I hadn't thought of it. It isn't quite as formal here, but it's a good comparison nonetheless.

    3. Ahh-so. So perhaps I should make that my scope of inquiry when I take the plunge: the Nodd's Ridge cycle of books.

      Incidentally, Nodd's Ridge is a really cool name for a fictional town.

      Or a real town, I guess, but as a name for a setting in a book I mean.

    4. Patrick McAleer in "The Writing Family of Stephen King" seems to feel that "Caretakers" exists mainly as a history-building exercise to set up the rest of the Nodd's Ridge series. I don't see it that way, personally; I thought the characters and situations worked perfectly well on their own, and that it would still be a worthy book even if no others had followed in its wake.

  3. I first read this book over 20 years ago and it has haunted me ever since. I checked it out from the library, so never had a copy to re-read. I'm going to find one and read it again. Thanks for your review - looks like you and I got the same ... gift ... from it. -SBP

    1. Cool!

      Yeah, this one was a big winner with me. I still haven't gotten around to reading another T.K. novel since this one, either, which bums me out. So many books, so little time!

  4. Just discovered this gem, after reading all her other works years back. Loved it. Find time for the rest of the series - they are well worth it. Small world, survivor and the trap are not nearly as good as Caretakers, Pearl, Book of Reuben and One on One (best in my opinion).

    1. I was just thinking the other day that I needed to find time to read another Tabitha King novel. Thanks for the reminder!

    2. ...and, nearly two years later, I managed to make good on that, and am currently devouring "The Trap." About a third of the way through, I like it less than "Caretakers" but like it plenty in its own right.

      Joe Never and "the Christopher widow" are mentioned in an off-the-cuff manner by one of the characters. You'd have no idea that King was referencing a different novel, though; it's a very deft allusion.

  5. I've been listening to the "Needful Things" audiobook and thought it was worth reporting that Nodd's Ridge is mentioned at one point.

  6. I actually felt that this book foreshadowed a lot of the mood that SK put in some of his later books. That broken connection between the two main characters makes me think of Dolores Claiborne and her daughter, and also DC and her frenemy, Vera.
    I really do think this book had a huge impact on the way SK looked at his characters.

    1. Yeah, for sure -- I can absolutely see that. I'd heartily recommend "Caretakers" to anyone who enjoyed "Dolores Claiborne."

      Have you read any of her other books? I've got to finish working my way through them someday soon. I've read three, and LOVED two of them.