Note: Patti Abbott is a long-running friend of this blog, but rest assured that I purchased a copy of the title below with my own funds. ISLF doesn’t accept review copies.
Concrete Angel isn’t at all the sort of book I was expecting. Its author, Patti Abbott, is a prolific short-fiction writer and Derringer Award winner, having made a name for herself with a long-running stream of hardboiled- and noir-influenced stories. I expected that pattern to repeat in her debut novel, but while Concrete Angel certainly has a genre bent, it isn’t primarily about conmen and cordite. You really can’t even call it crime fiction. Instead, Abbott has chiseled a profile of a very fractured family, a kleptomaniac matriarch whose narcissism knows few bounds and a daughter so desperate to please that she’ll take any rap for the woman who gave her life—even murder.
The night Christine’s mother brought home Jerry Santini isn’t her first memory, just her most consequential. She doesn’t remember Eve Moran returning with him, a stranger she’d met mere hours before. Or how they shared drinks. Or how they shared a bed. But she does recall Eve emptying a pistol into him and then rousing her to help deal with the body. Seems Santini caught Christine’s mother trying to slip some cash from his wallet and made a move toward the phone, muttering about her “not getting away with it.” He didn’t know about Eve’s two overweening desires, namely to steal and stay free. Those obsessions cause her to convince Christine to claim that she killed Santini. After all, Eve reasoned, no judge would put the esteemed Hank Moran’s daughter in prison, no matter how estranged the man might be from ex-wife and child. And Christine will acquiesce like she always does, unaware that ordinary mothers don’t defraud major corporations, see the inside of windowless department-store security rooms, or receive shock treatments in asylums ...
Imagine how Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle might read if it were a novel rather than a memoir, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what Concrete Angel is like. Abbott has the same understated touch as Walls, perhaps even more so, spinning significance from incidental details, stray lines of dialogue, recollections dredged up long after they’ve slipped down the well of years. Concrete Angel isn’t a barn burner or a page turner. Rather, it’s a slow, meditative, character-centered novel that will break your heart if you give it time to. Little niceties slowly accrue until you realize that Abbott isn’t merely creating a single supremely broken character: She’s putting down on paper how Eve’s actions ripple outward, a capillary wave unsettling generations of people around her. Unfortunately, such dedication to detail means that Christine doesn’t come into her own as a character until well past the halfway point and the ending feels a little abrupt. But these are minor quibbles. Concrete Angel is a finely carved debut.
(Picture: CC 2011 by Quinn Dombrowski)