The Undertaker’s Daughter seems to be another one of those books that I just didn’t quite get, as it seems that my opinion is greatly different from that of everybody else. At the time of writing my review, the book has a solid 4-star average, with nearly everybody making glowing comments on the lovely writing style, the depth of the characters, the riveting plot, and how difficult it was to put this book down. It’s been awhile since I felt so differently from the majority of people. To put it simply, I really did not enjoy this one.
Kate Mayfield was raised by an undertaker and took part in the day-to-day activities of the funeral home. In her memoir, she reflects on coming of age in 1960’s Kentucky, a time when it was still racially segregated and women were not valued. The book has been compared to The Help, which I loved – but aside from the setting, I can’t find any similarities.
Our narrator, who strangely never refers to herself by name within the book, is often offensive in her descriptions of her family, particularly her sister Evelyn. Evelyn is branded as the villain from the very beginning, while Mayfield’s other siblings are practically saints. She drops hints throughout (and finally reveals at the end) that Evelyn is mentally ill, but there is no compassion or understanding directed at her. At one point, Mayfield states:
Many days the daunting task of waking Evelyn in the morning fell to me. Oh, what a joyous task it was. Even in her sleep my sister looked angry, unsettled. It was the only time I could comfortably watch her without her snapping, “What are you looking at?”
My first question is to why the author feels the need to watch her sister so often, particularly while she’s sleeping. I know that I get a little cranky when people stare at me – I think this is a common feeling, and I wonder why she’s writing it as though it’s strange. My second question relates to how she would feel if Evelyn had written a nasty memoir about her. Did she wonder how Evelyn would feel if she read this book? She’s taken the story of her sister’s untreated mental illness and written it as though Evelyn chose to behave this way. Has Evelyn now received proper treatment? Everybody’s story is wrapped up at the end, but what became of Evelyn is still somewhat of a mystery.
The plot is often unfocused, as Mayfield begins telling one story only to get sidetracked by some minor happening. She leaves out many key details, often including her age, making the timeline extremely confusing. The way she writes herself as a young child is the same as she writes herself as a teenager and also a young adult. Her language and thoughts never evolve to give the reader a sense that she’s getting older, unless you count her developing romantic feelings. The writing overall is clumsy, as evidenced in the following passages:
Grabbing hold of a tuft of hair, she furiously teased it with her special teasing comb that if I touched I died.
The new magnet to his groin worked in one of the church’s offices.
The thing that most frustrates me in a memoir is an average person believing they’ve lived an exceptional life. In the case ofThe Undertaker’s Daughter, I felt like nothing particularly exceptional happened to our narrator. Or perhaps it did and she didn’t communicate it well. Her father was an undertaker, yes, but she reveals that there were multiple undertakers in her town, as I’m sure was common in this time period. Her father was a close friend of Miss Agnes, the wealthiest woman in town, but this is hardly relevant to the story. The most that happens is her father inheriting a mansion and having some legal trouble with Miss Agnes’ family. Mayfield reveals being deeply attracted to multiple African American boys in her class, going so far as to date them in a time of segregation. This was possibly the most interesting thing that happened in the book, and still it felt like it was just there so that Mayfield could feel good about herself for being ahead of the times.
It took me six days to read the first 150 or so pages, and I skimmed the remainder of the book. It didn’t catch my attention whatsoever, and I felt that large chunks needed to be removed or heavily edited. Again, as I said at the beginning of my review, my feelings are the polar opposite of most of what I’ve seen about this book, so maybe I’m just missing something. You might really enjoy it, as many people have.
Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for the free copy.
Final rating: ★★☆☆☆