It has to be said that the marketing for The Mutual Admiration Society is misleading. While peddled as a novel for adults, the target audience seems to be for those below the age of 14, which could be author Lesley Kagen’s true intention (or not; readers are not to be let into the [il]logical methodologies and reasoning of book marketing).
Set in Wisconsin in 1959, The Mutual Admiration Society is narrated by 11-year-old Tessie Finley. As the novel opens, Tessie’s curiosity is aroused when she witnesses one night a dodgy man carrying what looks like a dead body into the cemetery behind her house.
Tessie wants to know who the man is, the name of the dead person, and essentially, what the man is doing with a corpse. The fact that the man could be the cemetery caretaker or the corpse could be a pile of clothes or just anything but a dead body, does not cross Tessie’s mind.
Kagen herself does not see any reason to have this train of thought run past her protagonist; rather, it seems as though the author thinks laughter will be generated if she made her protagonist somewhat irrational and impulsive. Sadly, this proves not to be the case. However, if the novel was intended for young adults, then it may raise a smile or two.
To drive the plot along, Kagen has Tessie decide she will earn her keep through blackmail. Tessie’s plan is to start her new career by making veiled threats to the shifty man carrying the body in a cemetery.
Before she can get started on her new career, Tessie creates and appoints herself president of the Mutual Admiration Society, an organisation devoted to stopping crime within the neighbourhood.
To help launch her new blackmailing/crime-stopping career, Tessie enlists the assistance of her younger sister, Birdie. Born two months premature, Birdie’s brain is not fully developed (or as Tessie puts it: “Birdie’s brain doesn’t have an anchor, so she tends to drift off to parts unknown”). But apart from having Tessie be fiercely loyal to her sister, Kagen does not in any way focus on Birdie’s special needs condition, which is a shame as Kagen could have weaved a subplot with Birdie helping Tessie suss clues out using her unique points of view.
To get the Mutual Admiration Society going, Tessie also enlists the help of a neighbourhood outcast, Charlie Garfield, who acts as the voice of reason and Tessie’s partner-in-crime.
Tessie’s first rule of the Mutual Admiration Society is that all three of them should be wary and stay out of their neighbour Gert Klement’s way, as Klement is a gossip who likes nothing better than to see Tessie and Birdie sent to a children’s home.
It transpires that the Finley girls lost their father to a drowning, leaving their mother physically present but mentally and emotionally absent.
It has to be said that Kagen’s handling of the sisters’ grief over their father’s death was well-executed (if a little abrupt), as the scenes where they recall all the things Mr Finley did for them are genuinely poignant and touching.
The whole novel is set within a day, with Tessie, Birdie and Charlie managing to solve the mystery of the shifty man carrying a dead body in a cemetery, dodging evil Klement (and escape from being sent to institutional care), taking time to reminisce and grief for Mr Finley, worry a bit for Mrs Finley, while also trying to figure out the greatest mystery of all: the mystery of life.
Kagen has very valiantly tackled big themes in her novel but does not fully address them all, at least not to adult expectation.
As mentioned, The Mutual Admiration Society would be a charming read if it was geared towards young adults as opposed to adults creeping up to middle age. The suspension of belief within the novel is sadly not believable for an adult.
The conclusion: The Mutual Admiration Society is not a badly written tome, but the marketing for this novel is horrendously off-tangent. It would be a good read for the younger age group of the young adult market.
The Mutual Admiration Society
Author: Lesley Kagen
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing, fiction