Absolution: A Novel

by Alice McDermott

Hardcover, 2023

Call number



Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2023), 338 pages


Fiction. Literature. Historical Fiction. HTML: A riveting account of women's lives on the margins of the Vietnam War, from the renowned winner of the National Book Award. You have no idea what it was like. For us. The women, I mean. The wives. American women�American wives�have been mostly minor characters in the literature of the Vietnam War, but in Absolution they take center stage. Tricia is a shy newlywed, married to a rising attorney on loan to navy intelligence. Charlene is a practiced corporate spouse and mother of three, a beauty and a bully. In Saigon in 1963, the two women form a wary alliance as they balance the era's mandate to be "helpmeets" to their ambitious husbands with their own, inchoate impulse to "do good" for the people of Vietnam. Sixty years later, Charlene's daughter, spurred by an encounter with an aging Vietnam vet, reaches out to Tricia. Together, they look back at their time in Saigon, taking wry account of that pivotal year and of Charlene's altruistic machinations, and discovering as they do how their own lives as women on the periphery�of politics, of history, of war, of their husbands' convictions�have been shaped and burdened by the same sort of unintended consequences that followed America's tragic interference in Southeast Asia. A virtuosic new novel from Alice McDermott, one of our most observant, most affecting writers�about folly and grace, obligation, sacrifice, and, finally, the quest for absolution in a broken world. A Macmillan Audio production from Farrar, Straus and Giroux..… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member nancyadair
I have long been a fan of Alice McDermott. Absolution is a masterpiece. What more can I say? This is a novel the world needs, now, and ever. I loved these characters as they endeavored to heal a broken world by doing all the good they can in the limited ways they could.

Patricia was a young wife
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when she and her husband arrived in Saigon in 1963. She appears conventional and her values are traditional; she wants to be a good helpmate to her husband and longs to be a mother. But she has been drawn to more radical women.

Her friend in youth was impelled by her slave-owning roots to become involved in Civil Rights activism in the South. Her new friend Charlene, a wife and mother living in Saigon, brashly breaks the rules to raise money for charitable acts, taking gifts to civilians in the hospital and making new clothes for those in the leper colony. They are helped by Dominic, a young soldier with a wife and child. He shares his great love by volunteering at the hospital.

In old age, Patricia is contacted by Charlene’s daughter. Patricia shares her story, and learns the story of her old friend and her continuing acts of radical love, and also of Dominic whose goodness persisted until the end and whose story moved me to tears.

Barbie dolls, The Kennedys in the White House, Librium for housewives, men treating their wives like children, ignoring the poverty of Viet Nam, American’s anti-communism idealization justifying our involvement in Viet Nam, vividly renders the era. A more innocent time, in terms of ignorance and acceptance of the status quo. Patricia sees the burns on children, unaware they are napalm burns. Her husband believes that Buddhist protesters self-immolating were Communist infiltrators.

Charlene is a memorable character, angry and rebellious, beautiful and sophisticated, a woman Patricia is warned about. Her plans for doing good are not always well thought out and not always successful. But she insists on acting, on doing something, anything, for the great sin is to ignore the pain of the world.

In a year when I have read so many stunningly good books, this one rates at the top of my list of favorites. For its story telling and characters and for its insight and message and emotional and intellectual impact.

Thanks to the publisher for a free book.
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LibraryThing member melaniehope
This is my first book by the author Alice McDermott. The book is beautifully written. Most books about Vietnam take place in the late 1960s and revolve around the men fighting. This book takes place in 1963 Saigon and focuses on two wives, Charlene and Tricia. Their husbands are both civilians
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working for companies and the military in the early years of the Vietnam war. This is right before the US gets heavily involved in the conflict, before the protests and revolutions. The wives were there to be "helpmeets" to their husband and engage solely in social gatherings or charities.
The book was a little bit slow for me. It was told through a letter to Charlene's now adult daughter. It was more of a character development and not a story filled with action. However, I enjoyed reading it and learning more about what life was like for the women living overseas during this timeframe. I received a complimentary ebook through Netgalley.com in exchange for a review.
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LibraryThing member ccayne
Told from one point of view, contemporaneously and looking back, Patricia reflects on her time as a naive newlywed in Saigon at the beginning of the US involvement in the Vietnam war. I admire McDermott's spare language and discipline in sticking to Patricia's reflections of a powerful period in
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her life when she became part of Charlene's "cabal".
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LibraryThing member shazjhb
Excellent book. Set in Vietnam before the actual war started. Rainy, Tricia, Dom and Charlene are all impacted in different ways by their time in Vietnam.
LibraryThing member EllenH
Really liked it. This could come off as not much happening kind of book, but it's so well written and there's much going on. It's kind of character development and contradictions in the sixties where people were trying to do good (sometimes) and make a difference in Vietnam within parameters we
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don't always understand now. How far will you go to do what you think is needed? Or when do you speak up and stand your ground and how?
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LibraryThing member pdebolt
This is an engaging novel by Alice McDermott, an author whose observations of her characters are always astute. This novel begins in the early 1960s in Saigon when wives were permitted to live with their military husbands when they were deployed overseas. Tricia is newly married to an attorney on
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loan to navy intelligence. She is somewhat in awe of other wives who seem confident in their roles as military wives. It was an era when women were expected to be "helpmeets" and subservient. She then meets Charlene whose personality runs counter to the women she has met - Charlene runs her household efficiently with little input from her husband. She is also a self-appointed purveyor of gifts for those less fortunate and enlists Tricia's help in the acquisition and distribution.

Charlene has three children and Tricia forms an immediate bond with her young daughter. Many years later their memories are told in epistolary form. Charlene's charitable endeavors are simultaneously well intentioned and self-serving. Their histories as revealed in the letters are fascinating.

My husband is a former Military Intelligence officer, so I am familiar with the obligations of a young military wife. As with the military itself, there were both tacit and spoken expectations for the wives. It is an experience I cherish because it led to life-long friendships.
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LibraryThing member vancouverdeb
After reading The Ninth Hour and Someone, and giving them 4.5 stars and 4 stars respectively, I was disappointed in Absolution. Though it takes place in Vietnam in 1963, this is not a story of war, but rather one of friendship between Tricia and Charlene . Tricia is a shy, newlywed who accompanies
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her husband to Saigon, Charlene is outgoing, has three children and has been married for some years. The two meet in Saigon, and Charlene takes Tricia under her wing. While Charlene is a friend, she is also manipulative and cunning. The two try to do charitable work for those native to Saigon. There are tender moments, and some less so. The ending was abrupt, and I was left feeling let down. Nonetheless, I will look forward to more of the author's books.
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LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
Tricia is a young wife who accompanied her husband to Saigon. It's 1963, and the expat life of garden parties, evening drinks and children attending the international school while living in lavish homes cared for by local help is still normal. Tricia, by nature a good girl who grew up working class
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Catholic in Yonkers, is ready to do her part to help her husband's career. She's naturally shy, but keenly observant and she falls in easily with Charlene, a woman with goals and plans and the forceful nature needed to carry them out. She's quickly co-opted into Charlene's work, at first bringing toys to hospitalized children (and cigarettes to their parents), then into a plan that involves trips out to a leper colony. But the war is becoming something that can't be ignored and Tricia is forced into looking at how the very best of intentions can do harm.

The novel takes the form of letters written between Tricia and Charlene's daughter, in which Tricia explains how people thought and acted in that time and place, through the lens of what we now know. It's a balancing act, to tell the story of a woman in 1963, through her eyes then and now and McDermott is able to make that work. Charlene's actions, and therefore many of Tricia's were what we would look at now with a critical eye, as does the present day Tricia, looking closely at how what they were doing was just feel-good work for a large part, but also work that sometimes did real good and sometimes real harm. McDermott's characters seem fairly simple on the surface, but there's a lot of complexity under the surface. I will be thinking about the characters and the choices they made for some time. I recommend going into this book knowing as little as possible about it ahead of time.
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LibraryThing member kheders
Really enjoyed this book to see the Vietnam War from a young American bride's perspective and trying to fit into life in Saigon.
LibraryThing member bblum
Early 1960’s and Kennedy is President when young men both military and civilians with families were sent to Saigon to help the Soth Vietnamese defend democracy. Novel is told from the wives point of view who are left alone while the husbands do important things. Charlene, a force among the mostly
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passive women wants to do good but also make a little side money. Rachel new to Saigon and childless falls in with Charlene’s side hustle and begins to see South Vietnam from a different perspective than her husband. The ambiguity of what the US wants to foster in Vietnam is played with but mostly we see the wives POV. Interesting book and a reminder how straight we all once were.
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LibraryThing member kcshankd
A take on some of the multi-generational ripples of war, from the wives perspective. Spanning decades, an 80ish year old woman looks back at her time in Vietnam early in the American part of the war.


PEN/Faulkner Award (Finalist — 2024)
BookTube Prize (Octofinalist — Fiction — 2024)
Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year (Historical Fiction — 2023)
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