The Funeral Makers by Cathie Pelletier (3 out of 5)
Let me start off by saying that this book was sent by my friends at Sourcebooks. There was an article praising the works of Cathie Pelletier. This is actually her first novel, published originally in 1997, and repackaged with a bright red cover with coffins on it. If that doesn’t make you pick up the cover out of curiosity, well, you’re doomed. The bookseller side hasn’t checked into her works prior to this, so this was a nice introduction. If you like dark, quirky tales about dysfunction in a backwoods town, Pelletier is the one to deliver them.
Mattagash, Maine, is the home of the McKinnons, the polarizing family that founded and rules the roost (or controls everything in the town. Think of the Ewings, but in Maine and with less money and more pathos). There are the Giffords, the black sheep family of Mattagash. They’ve had one ancestor who shone brighter than the rest; because the rest of the family doesn’t shine as brightly, they’re considered the outcasts. This does not fester happy feelings among the two clans. (Hatfields Vs. McCoys, but much less violence and more black humor). Marge, the matriarch of the family, is dying, so the family gathers around for support, and ultimately, for hijinks that only a family like this could get into. I can’t even put into words how messed up and hilarious both families are. There are skeletons in everyone’s closet; with two undertakers in the midst of the family dynamic, that’s a literal undertaking. You have your usual backbiting, family fighting, crushes on the enemy, weird funeral humor, the whole package.
Pelletier does a great job painting a clear, concise picture of Mattagash and it’s two warring families. And when the word warring is used, it’s not serious. Comedic clashing is likely the more accurate town to the book. Imagine if Stephen King had written a book with John Cleese as a ghostwriter, and that’s what you have here. The only thing that dragged the book down is that it’s the old family clan dynamic at work again. The thing that makes it so well done, though, is Pelletier’s grasp of her odd characters and the strange town in which they dwell. The characters are daft, the drama is overdrawn, and it works ridiculously well. Reading it, however, felt like a story that’s been done so many times before, that it’s hard to work up a healthy enthusiasm for it. It is an incredibly enjoyable book, but it felt like she could have taken it in so many directions that weren’t explored. It’s highly likely that she did go into some new territory in the two novels that follow this one, for which haven’t been read yet, but after this one, it seems like there’s some opportunity for more ribald humor and less of the cliched family wars format. Definitely a book worth checking out, if you want to read something really different than your normal family dysfunction novel.