Mary Murphy grows up in a small town in the midst of an economic downturn as the daughter of a reluctant young mother who was impregnated by her alcoholic boyfriend on prom night.
Her mother can't seem to stay married, but she can't seem to stay single for long either, which leads to a new stepfather every few years. In addition, Mary is surrounded by family members grappling with the demons of substance abuse and big dreams coupled with little initiative: her mother, her lovable but good-for-nothing Uncle Mike, and, later, her older sister. Withdrawn, laconic, and lacking the hereditary delusions of grandeur, Mary sharply observes all those surrounding her and eventually breaks the cycle.
Hodgen's novel takes the form of a series of five elegies narrated by Mary, which together tell the story of her childhood and young adulthood. That such a young woman would have so many occasions for which to write an elegy, that the story of her life can be told as a series of deaths, testifies to the fact that Mary has grown up with endemic struggle and sadness. And yet, the elegies are not so much laments dedicated to the dead as linked short stories that often ignore their supposed subject, the elegized, for pages, to focus on Mary's story. Despite that, Hodgen, who peppers the narrative with a hearty dose of believable kitsch and quirk, creates a rich sense of atmosphere-a shared feeling among all her characters of a certain desperation, an anticipatory nostalgia for a future that never arrives-that gives the book an internal cohesion and makes for a satisfying, if somewhat melancholy, read.