Review: Open Me by Sunshine O'Donnell

Monday, December 3, 2007

Open Me by Sunshine O'Donnell (cover)

Open Me by Sunshine O'Donnell
MacAdam/Cage, 2007
$13 trade paper original
230 pages, ISBN: 1596922362

I can't recommend this book highly enough--it's elegant, informative,  evocative, and truly moving.  From the press release: "Mem is a wailer, a professional mourner hired to cry at funerals.  One of the few remaining American girls in this secret, illegal profession, Mem hails from a long line of mourners, including her mother, a legendary master wailer hired for the most important funerals in her hometown of Philadelphia."

The book opens with a historical note from 2006 that sets the world and the story that we're about to enter.  It introduces us to wailing in general, and Mirabelle (Mem) in particular.

"[...] Today, Mirabelle is in her twenties, although--as there is no legal documentation of her birth, life, or education--there is no way to confirm her actual age.  Mirabelle continues to refuse to speak to the press and does not allow photographs. [...]"

We then move on to a brief interaction at a funeral where Mem was hired to mourn.  This gives us a taste for the simple yet lyrical language Ms. O'Donnell uses to weave her tale, and drops us into a situation that itself weaves in and out of the story.  It's a major event that drives much of the development of the story, although you don't see exactly how until the end.

This sets the structure for the rest of the novel, which is the tale of Mem's apprenticeship and eventual mastery: alternating between historical documents (letter fragments, poems, US senate bills, and more spanning thousands of years) and the narrative of her life. 

Each chapter of Mem's story is meant to answer a question of the sort a wailer might be asked irrespective of their vow to not speak of such things--"Were you allowed to play like a normal child?  Do you believe in ghosts?  Have you ever lived in hiding?  What happens when you just can't cry?"  Some of these questions are answered better than others--the story is more important than attempting to infodump any particular piece of information and/or conjecture.

Ms. O'Donnell does a beautiful job of getting inside Mem's head and making "a normal childhood in the suburbs of Philadelphia in the 1980's" a truly surreal experience.  We see everything through Mem's eyes, from simple interactions with the other girls of the neighborhood; to the games she plays with her cousin in their back yard; to her teenage interactions with her mother.  Everything is just a little bit different, yet quite believable.

She says in the novel that death is something we're trained to ignore; and then keeps us focused on it throughout.  Death has a central importance to the story, regardless of the immediate subject.  Your own feelings about death, and death itself, cannot help being a part of the book as you read it, making it a very personal experience.

Again, from the press release: "Interweaving poetic prose and historical fact, Open me is an utterly original novel about mothers and daughters, dark underworlds, and the play between fact and fiction."  I agree completely.

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posted by kaolin

20 comments; 0 subscribers

Monday, December 3, 2007 / 22:35:03
To win our review copy of Open Me, tell us (leave a comment here) about the best cry you've seen--in a movie or in real life. We'll choose a winner at random from the posts.

Competition closes midnight December 12, US Pacific time. US & Canada only.
Wednesday, December 5, 2007 / 20:55:13
This raffle has been posted on
Wednesday, December 5, 2007 / 23:21:35
I love to read
Thursday, December 6, 2007 / 00:02:23
this sounds great
Thursday, December 6, 2007 / 09:20:48
Laura Ingalls (Melissa Gilbert)on Little House on the Prairie was a good cryer, and always brought tears to my eyes.
Thursday, December 6, 2007 / 15:49:33
I cried pretty good last night coming home from the temp agency. I ended up getting the same job that a drug dealer and a high school drop out could do (and they do). I graduated college for goodness sake. I shouldn't be working meaningless temp jobs. I couldn't even see the road I was crying so hard (tip: don't cry and drive at the same time).
Thursday, December 6, 2007 / 15:57:46
Looks like a great book.
Thursday, December 6, 2007 / 17:56:37
I love to read, read and read again.
Friday, December 7, 2007 / 11:01:13
Bjork in "Dancer in the Dark"... best cry in a movie.
Saturday, December 8, 2007 / 10:09:10
The best cry in real life was by my daughter when she watched "Brian's Song" for the first time. She was inconsolable.
Saturday, December 8, 2007 / 12:00:52
Renée Zellweger in Jerry maguire ;-)
Saturday, December 8, 2007 / 22:04:29
The last Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii which aired on Dec 1st, 2007. It was the cries of VICTORY on those swimmers/bikers/runners faces. It always gets to me!
Sunday, December 9, 2007 / 01:41:46
Thank you for the chance to win.
Monday, December 10, 2007 / 12:03:53
Steel Magnolias always gets me.
Monday, December 10, 2007 / 13:28:57
I cry in real life when I think of something I'd like to tell my Dad or any time I need advice. He's been gone almost 2 years but those cries are always just as intense now as ever.
Tuesday, December 11, 2007 / 08:30:06
When my Grandmother died, my Aunt gave as good a wail as any professional mourner, including throwing herself on the coffin as the funeral director tried to close it. In my Aunt's defense, my Grandmother was a wonderful woman who forged strong bonds with her children.

Since I was born in Philadelphia, I was familiar with professional mourners so I was able to make the comparison even at such a young age.
Wednesday, December 12, 2007 / 08:45:24
When we took our daughter to see Bridge to Terabithia, she cried in the middle of theater when she figured out Leslie died, and of course we had no kleenex.
Wednesday, December 12, 2007 / 09:44:54
When I think of my best friend (she'll be 70 and could be my grandmother, but I think of her as a second mom) not being around much longer because of failing health, I just cry and cry. Then, when I am done, I am just thankful to have had her in my life for the lastd 25 years. :)
Wednesday, December 12, 2007 / 22:55:14
When my mother died at home,my brother
went outside,I followed him to console
him.I have never seen a grown man cry
so hard,for so long.My heart ached for
him for I knew just how he felt.I was
trying to be the strong one and his
constant wailing and that was what I
called it made me cry.It was the worst I
had ever seen
Saturday, December 15, 2007 / 21:58:08
Out of the valid entries, our random number generator selects jesika252. Thank you all for participating, and I do hope you check out a copy of the book. Also, check back as we periodically post new reviews/raffles. There's almost always at least one running!

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