The Uneasy Charm of Mostly Dead Things
Florida has always had that reputation for being an oddball state. Built on swamps and people by retirees it took pride in being unlike any other place in the country. It’s not brash and in your face like the other states but it sure is confident in being its unique self. That’s why no one’s surprised when it produces horrors like the “Florida Man”.
This strange place is the setting for Kristen Arnett’s “Mostly Dead Things”, a novel about death, love, and memories. Surprisingly, the book isn’t depressing at all, it has it’s sad moments but it’s a funny book as well.
A Tale of Taxidermy and Death
The book is about Jessa, a Florida taxidermist whose father committed suicide. She found his body in the taxidermy shop that he handed down to her, which in turn was handed down to him by his father.
Her profession plays a very large part of the story. It can be taken as a commentary on both death and memory, which are important parts of the story. As she learned how to clean and stuff dead animals to turn them into tangible reminders, so she must deal with her past life.
The book alternates between her past and the present. It deals with Jessa’s memories of her father, who played the biggest part of her life, Milo her brother, and Brynn her first love. These three people had the most impact on her life. Surprisingly, Libby, her mother, has a very small role, at least in her memory of things. She’s there, but mostly just a voice. Never a strong presence that would shape her.
When they were children, Jessa, Milo, and Brynn most of their time together. When they grew older, Jessa and Brynn had a secret affair but Milo got Brynn pregnant and they got married. Eventually, Brynn abandoned Milo and their children.
The absence of her mom in her memories is influenced by her father’s treatment of her. Jessa’s father kept her mom away from his work and the world of taxidermy and since he took her on early as an apprentice, she felt her absence too. She became part of a world that did not have any place for her mom at all.
When her father committed suicide, Jessa inherits the taxidermy shop. He asks her to keep the shop in a letter that he left for her before killing himself. Unable to grieve properly, Jessa throws herself into the running of the shop.
When Libby starts to mess with the dead animals in the shop’s display window, Jessa becomes upset with her. She asks Milo to deal with their mom but instead of helping, he just suggests that it might be better for her to just sell the shop. She brushes aside his suggestion but she agrees to employ his son Bastien who was fresh out of rehab.
Things become more complicated when Libby’s lewd displays in the shop caught the eye of a local art gallery owner. She asks Libby’s mother if she can do a show for her gallery. Jessa was horrified at the idea, believing that it would smear the name of their shop and the art of taxidermy, but Milo thinks that the show can help Libby. So their mother throws herself at work to prepare for the show.
Things become more complicated after Jessa becomes attracted to Lucinda, the gallery owner. Though she is still hung up because of her feelings for Brynn, she starts to have a relationship with Lucinda. However, she becomes jealous of Lucinda’s ex-wife and partner Donna, who still lives with her.
As the date of Libby’s show approaches, Jessa becomes distraught. She is convinced that the show will be a disgrace to her family and her father’s legacy. But Libby insists on doing the show saying that the shop has done her so much harm just as Brynn has caused harm to her and Milo. They argue but Libby refuses to cancel the show.
Jessa also sends a message to Donna, telling her about her affair with Lucinda. Unfortunately for her, the show was not canceled and was still set to go, but then the gallery burned down before the show could open.
Realizing how much the show meant to her mother, Jessa tries to salvage pieces from her show and uses her skill to bring them back to life. She brings the remains of what she was able to Libby who was immensely grateful for what she did.
The book ends with Jessa and Milo looking at the space that will be converted into a gallery for Libby’s work. They were finally able to talk about the hurt that Brynn had caused both of them.
Coming to Terms
There is nothing intensely dramatic in the story of Arnett’s novel. There are no high-stake games involved. It’s just about ordinary people and their feelings and how they deal with those feelings and memories.
That’s why it’s so effective. Readers can relate to the sense of hurt and love that those characters feel. Everyone can feel the hurt that Jessa and Milo felt when Brynn abandoned them. This is where Arnett’s skill in storytelling becomes obvious. She was able to weave a tale about relatively ordinary lives and taxidermy, of all professions, and turn into something so compelling.
Her humor is what stands out in her story. There’s fun lurking beneath each scene that she paints with her words, even during the most intense and dramatic moments.
Perhaps Florida can be the only setting for this novel that features stuffed animals being placed in pornographic arrangements but its themes are universal. It’s a tale for everyone, which is why it deserves to be one of the bestsellers of 2019.