INTRODUCTION: Last Will is a book that came out of nowhere for me. I saw it recently on Net Galley and being in the mood for a change of pace I checked a sample and enjoyed it enough to request a review e-arc, but I never expected the wonderful engaging experience Last Will provided or the fact that I simply could not put it down once I idly opened it to see where it will fit in my reading plans.
"Bernie Raleigh is a failure at nearly everything he touches. Nobody notices a loser, and after being kidnapped for ransom as a child, Bernie has spent his adult life trying to avoid being noticed. That's impossible now that he's inherited his grandfather's enormous fortune. The inheritance comes complete with a mansion, a lot of obligations, and a very problematic housekeeper named Meda Amos. Beauty queen, alien abductee, crypto-Jew, single mother--Meda is all those things, and she may be the only person who can help Bernie survive his new and very public life."
OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Last Will's blurb is reasonably accurate as it goes but it does not convey the power and richness of the book:
Bernie, now 30 and moonlighting as an assistant librarian in Kansas city, last male scion of a very rich family, returns to the childhood mansion when his grandfather dies and leaves him his billions, but said childhood mansion is also the place where Bernie was abducted for ransom as a 9 year old - at the local school more precisely - and where the events that shaped him in the retiring and frightened man of today took place, in addition to the tragic accidental deaths of his "golden boy" older brother and of his father, deaths which his estranged mother somehow blames on him - or maybe not blames directly but in the "why my idiot son survived when my husband and my very promising first born did not?" indirect way...
We slowly discover his peculiarities but Bernie's voice is very compelling and he is fundamentally a good man:
"I believed Meda’s mother. I don’t mean that I accept the notion that aliens came to our planet and took Muriel into their space ship. Although I don’t dismiss that idea as impossible, it seems like the least likely of several possibilities. I believe something happened to her, something that made her feel taken away from herself, something that returned her not quite as she had been.
I was nine, nearly ten. They were waiting for me as I walked home from school. I was taking a shortcut through the city park, and someone called my name. Amy waved at me. She was a blonde girl who had worked for my parents as a maid for a while. I had a little crush on her. I remember that she asked me about Robby. When I told her he was sick at home, she looked upset. I followed her gaze to a battered van parked up the hill, where the path widened into a little lane that eventually emptied onto a side street. There was a man leaning against the van watching us. Amy’s boyfriend, Joel."
At the mansion he meets Meda who is an early 20s local exotic looking beauty with facial scars that somehow make her even more compelling - the ugly history of those is recounted later in the novel - from a weird downscale family living in and out trailers, single mother of a toddler, working as assistant housekeeper for her aunt, now the domestic help in charge of Bernie's mansion. Tough minded and knowing that "sleeping with the boss" is unlikely to lead anywhere but to social opprobrium and heartbreak, Meda walks a fine line between humoring the immediately lovestruck Bernie and keeping him at a distance, but as her good looks tend to attract the local tough boys, she is slowly attracted by Bernie's goodness and loneliness; of course a lot lies between them, from his peculiarities, to both their histories to the social gulf...
"He was a nice guy, but I didn’t know what it was about, his being so eager to help me out, and then paying for lunch and a movie. I figured it was about sex, because it’s almost always about sex. During the movie, I thought about how I felt about that. Even though he definitely wasn’t my type, he wasn’t bad. He was too tall and he wasn’t handsome, but he had a nice face, with those sad dog eyes and his crooked nose. I liked that he was so polite, and it didn’t hurt that he had money. Except he was a disaster waiting to happen, being who he was, being my boss, being so sad."
Last Will is one of the most charming and uplifting book I've read in recent years - last year's The Lover's Dictionary and 2010's Thera are other similar books I greatly enjoyed - while staying very grounded in "reality", though of course both Bernie and Meda who alternate first person narration - with few interludes from Bernie's aunt who functions as an outside/back story POV - are quite unlikely themselves, but the skill of the author is such that both just stood out, took over and made me not able to put this book down once I opened it. The alternating narrative structure dealing with the same events from Bernie or Meda's perspective works very well and I think it is a key to the book's success.
The secondary cast of characters - especially Meda's family - are also very well drawn and the small town feel is authentic and not glossed over in any way. A special mention goes to Meda's mom, Muriel whose "alien abduction" stories are both pathetic but also a way to cope with her not-so-easy life as Bernie understands the best. Despite their very different situations, Bernie's abduction as a child and what happened then, all recounted at key parts of the book and essentially defining him, coupled with his parents and most of his family's low regard for him, made him closest psychologically with Mureil, while Meda generally tough minded resembles her more practical grandma and aunt who kept the family going.
The storyline is not particularly complicated, though there are a few surprises here and there, but that is beside the point as Last Will lives in Bernie and Meda. The back stories are quite important and the way they are inserted leading to the final piece of the puzzle that explains some of Bernie's stranger peculiarities like his inability to sleep with someone else - sleep as in sleep not sex btw, where Bernie is reasonably normal, though of course with some strangeness there too - fit very well the general structure of the book.
Overall Last Will is a top 25 novel of mine that I expect to reread across the years when needing a funny, smart and ultimately very uplifting novel.