Review by Megan Renehan
In The Living Wills, Sullivan and Kaempfer tell a story of interconnected lives and the consequences of split-second decisions. The novel follows five main characters: a parking garage attendant, a barista, a toilet salesman, a lawyer, and a corporate executive, ultimately connecting their lives in deep and unexpected ways. The story is structured in short chapters alternating between the main characters' points of view. Rich with emotion and local detail, The Living Wills is a story that stayed with me long after I had closed the book.
In the preface, the authors note the novel's structure is influenced by the Harold, an improvisational theater form created by Del Close. While the novel does not exactly follow the form, the interwoven stories lend themselves to the influence of improv. Sullivan and Kaempfer set themselves up for a challenge by telling the stories of five main characters each through a different point of view, but each of the story lines is unique, all the characters are clearly drawn, and there is no confusion for the reader. Short chapters advance the plot quickly and keep the reader engaged.
What struck me most about this novel was its sweetness.
What struck me most about this novel was its sweetness. Sullivan and Kaempfer navigate issues of love, loss, and family dynamics with a care that is crucial to the success of the novel. The straightforward, unadorned prose does no work to convey the depth of emotion in the novel; that job is reserved solely for the characters, and they carry the load well. Though each of the characters trend slightly towards the stereotypical, the reader is able to accept them as individuals thanks to Sullivan and Kaempfer's well-placed personal details. Delmar, the toilet salesman, is a salesman to his core, and his application of sales principles to his romantic relationship is at once comic and endearing. Similarly, the scenes in the parking garage with the executive and the attendant are injected with emotion when we learn that “Reed went through the usual charade of offering a smoke to Henry, who always pretended to consider it before declining.” These details elevate the novel from cliché to something much deeper and more satisfying for the reader.
As difficult as it is to wrap up intricately woven narratives, Sullivan and Kaempfer succeed there, as well. However, for me, the final section, “Justice,” seemed more like an afterthought and negated the balanced ending that the authors had achieved for the primary characters. “Justice” was the giant bow on an already beautifully decorated package – it wasn't needed and detracted slightly.
The rich details about Chicago only add to the novel's appeal, and I find myself thinking of Henry, Reed, and Delmar when I pass Waveland Bowl or a parking area on lower Wacker Drive.
On the whole, The Living Wills was a pleasure to read for Sullivan and Kaempfer's deft characterization and effective structural choices. The rich details about Chicago only add to the novel's appeal, and I find myself thinking of Henry, Reed, and Delmar when I pass Waveland Bowl or a parking area on lower Wacker Drive.