Stacia Pelletier’s second published novel, The Half Wives, tells a powerful story of love and loss in the untamed hills of 19th-century San Francisco. The novel is a uniquely immersive reading experience, with each chapter narrated by one of four central characters. Time and place are deftly characterized, each playing a vital role in Pelletier’s meditation on what the concept of progress means in the face of personal loss and a city’s development. The combination of Pelletier’s deftly constructed narrative and experimentation in form make the book a memorable reading experience that’s difficult to put down.
The Half Wives tells the story of four characters: Marilyn, her husband Henry, his estranged lover Lucy, and Lucy and Henry’s daughter, Blue. Rather than relying on each character’s first-person account, Marilyn, Henry and Lucy’s chapters are delivered in the second person, insinuating the reader directly into the character’s shoes. Second person novels are rarely attempted because they pose immense structural challenges to the author and reader, but much like Italo Calvino’s postmodern If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Pelletier’s exercise in empathy is what makes the novel so stirring. For example, readers are prone to bristle at the idea of adulterous characters, but the structure makes it impossible not to consider how one might feel in his and her circumstances. This form, too, makes it necessary for readers to mourn with Marilyn and Henry, overcome by grief after the loss of their son, Jack, 14 years prior.
Time plays the fifth and perhaps most vital character in The Half Wives, which takes place over a six-hour period on the anniversary of Jack’s death. On this day, the novel follows the characters moving from their disparate but intertwined lives to meet at the cemetery. Each chapter opens by stating the time, and a sense of urgency is developed both by this demarcation, and the knowledge that both Henry and Marilyn are expected at the grave by 2 p.m. The reader is further rushed by the absence of quotation marks — dialogue is instead demarcated by em dashes, each line forcing the audience to lean in and hasten to what’s next. This acceleration is contrasted by the lingering and stagnant grief experienced by each character: Marilyn and Henry for their lost son and failed marriage, Henry and Lucy for the life they cannot have together. In each character’s narrative, the backstory is gracefully revealed to make sense of their current situations. Time is also central to the characterization of San Francisco, which is in a phase of heavy development when the story takes place. The cemetery in which Jack is buried is under threat by the growing city, which plans to excavate bodies in order to build over the cemetery in the name of progress, a scenario that doesn’t sit well with parents who find themselves unable to let go.
ArtsATL: The story takes place in late 19th-century San Francisco. How did you choose this setting?
Stacia Pelletier: I lived in San Francisco for a couple of years just out of college, so I fell in love with the city then; although, I haven’t lived there in 15 years or so. When I was a graduate student, I studied missionaries in the late 19th century in the West. So, I was originally interested in writing a book that would have a much more overtly religious tone about Lutherans and other missionaries in San Francisco in that time period. But then I got distracted because in my research I started stumbling on this story about the cemeteries in San Francisco and the political battle over that, so that sent me down that rabbit trail.
ArtsATL: Tell me how your investigation into cemeteries inspired the love triangle that drives the book.
Pelletier: The coming together of all of it actually took place in Atlanta when I was walking through the Decatur Cemetery and I saw this headstone that was a man and then beside him was clearly his wife. Then on the other side was another woman who was not a second wife, and not a daughter, but she was right there with them. I began to think about what it would be like to have a secret that lasted so long that it lasted all the way to the grave. From there, my imagination took off.
ArtsATL: How did you depict San Francisco accurately in that era?
Pelletier: There was a lot of research about the character of the city during that time period, especially what they called the Outside Lands of the city in San Francisco. That western part of the city had its own unique subculture; it was much wilder and less urban . . . and then just looking at the religious denominations during that period. A lot of that didn’t make it explicitly into the novel, but with Henry as a former Lutheran minister, I sort of had to poke around and see who were the Lutherans then and what did they do or were they even there.
ArtsATL: How did your background in theology play into characterizing Henry?
Pelletier: I think Henry reflects some of my own years of angst about navigating who I am and who I’m not, religiously. So he still has some sort of belief, but it’s not what he once had, because life has clobbered him, and I studied religion as an undergraduate, as a seminary student and as a PhD student, and in all that time I was trying to come to grips with my own religious background, what I still believe and what I didn’t. So I think some of my own struggle with what faith means came out in Henry. My appreciation for my old Lutheran faculty members and teachers and Methodist teachers who have a lot of wisdom and who are really smart, interesting, good people who you wouldn’t think of as typical ministers played a role too.
ArtsATL: Tell me about your choice to write three of the four characters in the second person. What’s the importance of Blue being the only character written in the first person, especially in the context of her mother Lucy referring to Blue as her second person?
Pelletier: I wanted the reader to feel implicated when he or she read. When I’m reading a first person novel it sounds like it’s the author’s voice, and I wanted the reader to feel like they were being talked to, like you are Henry, you are Marilyn, you are Lucy. And actually in an earlier draft, Blue was also in the second person, but it was only through a series of edits and arguments with my editor that she helped me see to have some variance with the youngest child’s voice would be important to sort of making her distinctive and also giving a sort of hope at the ending that maybe she is, in some ways, the storyteller, even though she is the youngest one. Also, I didn’t want readers to be too quick to judge any of those characters, and something about using the form “you” even though it’s challenging for readers to get into felt like it would help readers withhold judgment on each character until they had time to be in their shoes for a while.
ArtsATL: Did you think that was especially important with Henry, as he has had an affair?
Pelletier: Sure. It’s amazing to read reader responses to novels where they so quickly dislike characters and say they’re not likable because they don’t like what they did, and people are so much more complicated than that. I really wanted people to think and explore what it means to really struggle with two loves that can’t go forward.
ArtsATL: How does the idea of progress for the city compare to their personal progress (or lack thereof) in dealing with a tragedy?
Pelletier: I’m a deep lover of the environment and of our natural world, so my exploration of what development meant in San Francisco in the late 19th century is born in part because I know that change has to happen but I grieve for what we lose when we do that. The opening quotation says, “Cemeteries, like people, must move onward to make room”; to me it poses an ethical and moral question, like I know we have to move on and progress both in our cities and communities and in our relationships, but what’s the cost of moving on? And what do we trample on or leave behind?
ArtsATL: What is the importance of the fact that Henry was once a minister?
Pelletier: I wanted to show in some ways that the loss of a child is such a shattering event that it shatters not only relationships but also faith and the whole structure on which a person can build their lives — that it can shatter everything. And I also wanted to show that how people who try to help people who are grieving — people mean well but they invariably can cause damage — it can cause more pain, even in a congregational setting or a setting where there’s people of faith.
ArtsATL: How are you able to write so poignantly about loss? Was it challenging to write about a tragedy of this scale?
Pelletier: Yes and no. I mean I’ve never lost a child myself, but I’ve experienced loss in my life and I’ve had people who are close to me who’ve experienced that loss, so I think if you hit on a basic core human emotion and experience and try to be empathetic about it, I think you can get pretty far. I think we’re all pretty beat up in life once we’ve reached a certain age, so we use our experiences. And I think part of the creative process is translating what’s your unique particular experience to something else. I think that can be done if it’s done with integrity.