Can a novel be grisly and affectionate at the same time? Canadian novelist Trevor Cole attempts to strike that delicate balance in Practical Jean, his well-crafted if disconcerting black comedy about a serial-killing ceramicist.
The premise of Practical Jean recalls Joseph Kesselring’s classic 1939 play, Arsenic and Old Lace, in which two maiden aunts poison lonely old men and bury them in the cellar. In both works, the murders are not meant to be taken too seriously. Indeed, Cole’s third novel kicks off with a prologue containing a few blunt words of warning:
You might think this a rather horrible and depraved sort of story. But that’s because you’re a nice person….[T]he truth of it is that this story is filled with nice people, and yet what happened could not be more awful.
The eponymous small-town protagonist of Practical Jean is the artistically fanciful and prosaically married Jean Vale Horemarsh, who creates “the loveliest, most ridiculous pieces of pottery you or any other living person has ever seen.” Jean’s stern veterinarian of a mother, Marjorie Horemarsh, displays some troubling quirks: She once drowned a litter of disabled pups whelped by the family dog because she thought medicated deaths would be too expensive. Jean, ever kindhearted, responds by drowning her own collection of stuffed animals, hoping that act will give the puppies company in heaven — a foreshadowing of the killings to come.
Despite having two brothers, Jean shoulders the entire dismal task of caring for her mother as Marjorie dies, agonizingly, of an unspecified cancer. Granted, the experience of helplessly watching a loved one suffer through a terminal illness is deeply traumatizing. But where most caregivers mourn and move on, Jean Horemarsh concocts an unhinged scheme: She decides she will prevent her closest friends from experiencing the ravages of aging and disease by bumping them off, one by one.
First, though, loving friend that she is, Jean is determined to bring each recipient of her lethal largesse a moment of maximum happiness — a final gift before that sudden, unexpected exit. To accomplish this will require determination, improvisation and a sympathetic knowledge of what brings the most joy to each of her friends.
Complications ensue, of course, but they only make the plotting and the ironies more delicious. Both of Jean’s brothers are cops — one the police chief — in their (fictional) little town of Kotemee. Jean’s husband, Milt, with whom she had planned to live out her days, is having a dalliance with one of Jean’s best friends, Louise. A long-lost high school friend, Cheryl, turns out to be such a drunken, despondent mess that she keeps throwing herself in the path of oncoming cars, making Jean’s plan seem superfluous at best.
And then there is Fran. Initially an annoying presence to Jean, this well-heeled near-stalker ultimately shows promise of becoming her best friend of all.
As a character, Jean Vale Horemarsh is alternately sympathetic and infuriating. Her path is abhorrent, but in the course of pursuing it she seems to learn something about friendship and its limitations — and so do we. “Ever more,” Jean concedes at one point, “it seemed as if the people she loved and thought she knew had been visible to her only through veils …. Perhaps it was true that you never really knew anyone until it was too late. Or maybe really knowing someone wasn’t possible.” With the law closing in on her, Jean will soon have all the time in the world to ponder these lessons.
Philadelphia cultural reporter and critic Julia M. Klein is a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.