Love Letters of the Angels of Death by Jennifer Quist your marriage . . . your death . . . you


I was on Amazon reading about this book, no idea it was by a Mormon author, and darn near bought it. Then I remembered there’s a moratorium on Theric buying new books and since I wasn’t up to the free-shipping level I closed the tab before I could get into trouble. Then, later that day, I bounced into an email lounging in my inbox offering a free digital copy to AMV for review. And, now, here we are.

In this review, I’ll be worrying less about a holistic look at the novel (though if that happens , great; if not, just know it’s terrific) and more about looking at the striking artistic choices Quist has made. Or, in other words, we’ll be discussing passages I highlighted during my reading.

But enough about me.

The novel is told in first-personish. Which is to say, the narrator isn’t the main main character. That would be his wife. But this isn’t, say, Gatsby or Wuthering Heights where the minor character’s narration becomes essentially third-person. This book is addressed to this narrator’s wife, making the point of view essentially second-person. Which, if you are cleverer than me, you will see addressed right in the title. Of course he’s writing to someone. These are letters we are reading, whether they have a formal salutation or not.

The man and his wife are established right away as angels of death in chapter one as they find the rotting remains of his mother on the floor of her mobile home. They find the body and are subsequently put in charge of everything related to a person having become a body. Which role they then accept for their families generally. The first paragraph:

It was only a matter of time before we found human remains. Maybe that’s true for everyone. This is how it happened for us. (8—numbers refer to Nook locations in the ARC)

Now, this isn’t their first time to view remains, but it is the first time being the ones to find someone’s remains—the remains of someone beloved—and in that moment they enter into an intimate relationship with death.

Of course, we are all in an intimate relationship with death, not matter how we may ignore it. As I tell my students, no matter the book we read, evvvvverything is about death. Life, to be brief, is about death. Or, if you find it more pleasant, death is about life.

Now, although the couple is never explicitly labeled LDS, any LDS reader will recognize the signs. The first undeniable tell I marked was “one of [their] favorite eschatological maxims about how it takes a spirit and a body to make a soul” (22). The novel ultimately becomes a powerful argument in favor of the artistic value of Latter-day Saint experience while suggesting (though not arguing) that the six-letter M word is not worth the risk of audience alienation. Which I say simply because it never drops the M-bomb.

This particularly Mormon definition of the soul proves useful thematically as the characters encounter death directly, sideways, in near-misses. Consider the (at the time still teenaged) wife’s view of her braindead grandfather:

. . . a machine breathes into your grandfather’s body as he, or something like him, lies tucked beneath a stiff yellow sheet. (29)

Which leads to the story of the vacuum salesman her grandparents once listened to—“the first person you [remember: “you” is the wife of our couple] ever heard claim that most household dust is actually dead skin” (31), who used his marvelous machine to suck up her grandparents’ dust, making a small pile of themselves.

. . . maybe if they’d let him clean the whole house . . . the coffee table would have been covered in a heap of dead skin as big as both your grandparents put together . . . finer than dry, prairie snow—deep, and inextricably blended, a million individual flakes combined so well it doesn’t matter anymore if they aren’t all exactly alike. (32)

Quist has a knack for these large-yet-small metaphysical conceits, and I admire that so much. Sometimes I see a skill in a writer than I cannot hope to emulate (at least without turning satirical) and so instead of trying to learn from a paragraph like this one, I instead just revel in its absurd, perfect beauty.

Back to the narrator. The frequency of “you” (and the solidity of the husband’s solitary voice) occasionally made me feel slightly uncomfortable, as if I were sitting on the bus in front of a couple made of one silent partner and one champion mansplainer. And here, although I force my own students to play the New Criticism game, I took some comfort in the sex of the author. This is a woman writing as a man writing to a woman, which creates a layer to the fictional couple’s relationship that allows me to listen to the man’s words without feeling oppressive. At times, I was mystified by the things he knew about her—and the detail! Sure, they share a true-love intimacy Princess Bride can only hint at, but he knows things no one can know. At one point, he tells a story in which he up-front admits “we never speak of [one] afternoon” (161) that only she experienced, yet he recounts to her. It would be no spoiler to explain how this is possible assuming you are a cleverer reader than myself (suffice it to say, I had my assumptions backwards—like a dolt), but at other times he tells her of things only he has ever known—and only he may ever know. For instance, “that sound you only make when you’re asleep . . . the worst thing I’ve ever heard” (38)—which, naturally, is born of dreams triggered by daytime views of the unnaturally preserved dead.

Back to this issue I’ve stupidly brought up—(A Woman Wrote This Book)—let me point out now that she writes men extremely well. I certainly see myself in the “part of my unconscious mind that hears the little cries in the night and sleeps on and on—fat, loathsome, and fatherly in a way that’s more reptile than it is human” (39).

* * * * *

“That’s it exactly,” you say, quietly. “It’s like death has been specially grooming us for something for years.” (54)

At this point, I’m near 1000 words—looong for a blogpost. I haven’t talked about the descriptions of aging (eg, “You still hadn’t quite become yourself yet” [69] of a teenager), the varied use of allusion (from Gregor Samsa to Aslan), the depictions of other loves from other times, the influence of family history and geography upon presently lived lives, the equation that turns births into deaths and nurturers into sacrifices, Quist’s many other exquisite conceits that Donne would have admired—in fact, I’ve not hit a quarter of my notes and my notes are probably not a quarter of what I could have marked for discussion. And, for a Motley Vision post, I sure didn’t engage in much discussion on the novel’s examination of Mormon culture—cultural-hall wedding receptions, missions abroad, cremation uncertainty. . . . Sorry about that.

Love Letters of the Angels of Death is my new go-to novel on issues of matrimony and mortality, and the volume I’m most likely to shove into the hands of anyone who does not think those inseparable.

As it is, I’ve ordered a hard copy to give to my wife as a symbol of what I hope we are and I hope we will be.

+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +

A note on the Whitneys:

This novel, along with Mile 21, is among the five nominees in the General category for the upcoming Whitney Awards. Both are excellent. If the other three novels are comparable, then this is an extremely strong category. (Those novels are in the mail to me now.) Quist’s novel makes a strange choice (mistep?) in its penultimate chapter, but is so luminous and innovative, I think it’s my top choice anyway. But I have three other books to read and will need to revisit Mile 21 before committing myself. But I know many Whitney judges are very public about their decision-making, so here some grist.

16 thoughts on “Love Letters of the Angels of Death by Jennifer Quist your marriage . . . your death . . . you”

  1. A compelling novel about family relationships and against a backdrop of events surrounding death. Although a book of fiction, it’s cast is reminiscent of intriquing characters who populate our own families and often fit the stranger than fiction category. Initially, the writing style necessitates some extra focus but once you settle in, you become comfortable and appreciate the unique perspective it provides. The book offers some interesting and suspenseful twists that will surprise the reader and leave them wanting more of Quist’s writing. Unfortunately, this novel probably gets passes over by the Whitney judges because it’s edgy and fresh and not the pablum that the Churchy LDS judges prefer.

  2. While they don’t align precisely to my tastes, I gotta say that not everything that the Whitney judges has shortlisted or the Whitney academy has voted as a winner is pablum. And some of it is even edgy and fresh.

  3. Sigh. Ibreally want to read this book but my backlog of to read is really big right now. From what I have read, though, this book wins if there is justice amongst the Whitney Judges. And I am okay with that.

  4. .

    It didn’t have the rose then. But I’m not proud. Though I might have felt sheepish carrying it into the high school.

  5. I haven’t got to Sarah’s book yet either but it looks like she’s got the she’s-so-nice-she-deserves-it-more vote sewn up. Sarah, everything I’ve heard about your book has been a rave so consider me equally intimidated. Did they give you much input into the cover? My publisher outright adopted the image I suggested so if anyone doesn’t like my cover, it’s all on me. Thanks for the thoughtful review, Theric and AMV.

  6. Jennifer,
    we had some back and forth about the cover. And the tagline. And the blurb. In the end… I ended up just letting them do their thang, because we were close to the release deadlines for ARC and such. It is still a better cover than some they came up with. And the sad thing is, usually that is Cedar Fort’s area of strength. Oh well.

    I think it is great, honestly, just to have so many people read and provide feedback for my story. And I think it’s great that you’ve gotten this exposure, too!

  7. Yes, this is a strong Whitney contender. Non-M-bomb droppers, unite!

    It is interesting to me that the “essentially second person” voice is also the narrative choice of another VERY well-reviewed Whitney finalist, All the Truth That’s in Me, by Julie Berry.

  8. .

    Interesting. The effect is certainly similar. I hadn’t considered that.

    Of course, that technique works much better from Pr Eyring than from, say, well, someone else.

  9. .

    My wife just finished the novel and she thought the final chapter redeemed it from being a purple mess.

    It takes all kinds!

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