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48 pages 1 hour read

Alice McDermott

Absolution

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2023

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Absolution (2023) is the ninth novel by American author and National Book Award winner Alice McDermott. Absolution explores the inner lives of American military wives during the Vietnam War, through the eyes of protagonist Tricia. Sorting through Tricia’s memories of Saigon, McDermott ruminates on the complex nature of moral duty, the ongoing legacy of Vietnam’s colonial history, and the compromises everyone must make throughout their lives.

This guide is based on the 2023 Macmillan e-book edition.

Content Warning: Absolution contains depictions of sexism and racism, as well as brief descriptions of wartime violence and discussions of miscarriage and infant loss.

Note: Absolution uses the outdated name Saigon to refer to Ho Chi Minh City.

Plot Summary

Elderly widow Patricia “Tricia” Kelly writes a letter to a middle-aged woman named Rainey, the daughter of her late friend Charlene. She is writing in response to an earlier letter sent by Rainey, who contacted her asking for more information about her time in Saigon and a man named Dominic “Dom” Kelly. Tricia recalls her time as a young military wife in Saigon. In 1963, a 23-year-old Tricia moves to Saigon with her husband Peter, who works as a civilian advisor for the CIA. At the time, Southern Vietnam is under Ngo Dinh Diem’s authoritarian, pro-Catholic rule.

Military wives in Saigon are expected to abide by a strict code of social etiquette. Tricia struggles with these rigid social conventions due to her shy personality. She recounts her first meeting with a young Rainey, at a cocktail party. Rainey proudly shows Tricia her Barbie doll and her large collection of doll clothes. Shortly afterward, Tricia meets Rainey’s bombastic mother Charlene, another corporate wife. Charlene deftly loops Tricia into her latest charitable project. She hires Lily, a Vietnamese seamstress, to manufacture Barbie-sized ao dais (a traditional Vietnamese dress) and begins selling customized “Saigon Barbies” at a high markup. She uses proceeds from sales to fund a small charitable effort, giving out small baskets of toys and candy to patients at the local children’s hospital.

Charlene and Tricia become fast friends, and Tricia is exposed to Charlene’s inner world. Charlene chafes against the limitations of life as a woman in the 1960s. She believes that she has a duty to help the less fortunate and turns to black-market dealings to raise money for her humanitarian efforts. Tricia joins Charlene at the hospital, where she comforts children with apparent napalm burns. As the scale of Charlene’s plans escalates, she is joined by Dominic “Dom” Carey, an empathetic young GI who helps Charlene circumvent curfews and checkpoints. With Dom’s help, Tricia, Lily, and Charlene visit a leprosarium on the outskirts of the city, where they measure the female patients for customized ao dais. Lily joyfully reunites with her cousin, who is quarantined at the leprosarium.

In a parallel narrative thread, Tricia’s attempts to start a family with Peter are waylaid by several miscarriages. Tricia grows increasingly uneasy about the dangerous situations Charlene puts her in, as scattered acts of violence punctuate the news in Vietnam. Charlene continues to scale up her philanthropic activities. She begins arranging unofficial private adoptions between Vietnamese mothers and American couples, ensuring that the mothers are paid in exchange for their infants. Overwhelmed, Tricia disengages fully from Charlene’s charitable ventures. Charlene and Lily continue to visit the leprosarium without Tricia. On their third visit, Lily elects to stay behind and live with her cousin.

The second part of the novel is a letter from Rainey, now a middle-aged woman with several adult children. Charlene has been dead for over 20 years. While renovating a property with her husband Doug, Rainey encounters an elderly Dom Carey. Dom lives with his wife Ellen and his adopted son Jamie, who has Down syndrome. He and Rainey strike up a friendship. Rainey is touched by Dom’s kind-hearted nature and his positive relationship with Jamie. One day, he invites Rainey into his house, where she sees a Saigon Barbie on his shelf. Rainey and Dom realize their connection and reminisce on their memories of Charlene. Later that day, Dom dies in a freak accident. In the following months, Doug is diagnosed with dementia. Rainey writes to Tricia asking for more information about Dom.

The narrative returns to Saigon. During Tricia’s final months in Vietnam, Charlene brings Tricia to a makeshift orphanage. Inside, she meets several young children and a baby nicknamed “Suzie.” Charlene has arranged for Tricia to bring Suzie with her to America and raise her as a daughter. Tricia is taken with Suzie and brings her to the home she shares with Peter, excited to live out her dream of motherhood. Later that night, however, the other children from the home show up, crying for Suzie’s return. Unable to bear their tears, Tricia hands Suzie back to them. Tricia and Peter leave Vietnam in late 1963, with Charlene’s family following shortly afterward. Days after their arrival in America, Diem is assassinated. The Kellys move to DC, where Tricia takes up a career in teaching. After three additional miscarriages, she has a hysterectomy at 35, giving up on her dream of motherhood. She and Peter enjoy a long, mostly happy marriage before Peter’s death. Tricia closes the novel with a fond reflection on Charlene, remembering the “outsized generosity […] [and] furious ambition” (323) of her late friend.

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