A few months ago, I took part in Grub Street‘s Muse and the Marketplace writers’ conference, where I had the opportunity to attend six workshops over the course of the weekend. One of those workshops was led by Jennifer Haigh, who spoke at length about the act of “pre-writing.” I suppose it could be described as creating back-story for your characters, but it’s really more than that; Haigh mentioned having notebooks upon notebooks for single characters, something I considered at the time to be absolutely amazing. Now that I’ve read her debut novel Mrs. Kimble, it’s completely unsurprising; Haigh knows her character’s better than — well, better than I could even come close to articulating.
After a brief, attention-grabbing prologue, Mrs. Kimble begins in 1961; it is the story of three women, though the title’s singular nature would have you assume otherwise. The pages follow Birdie, Joan and Dinah, three very different women who become, at one point or another, the Mrs. Kimble of the novel’s name. They are as follows:
- Birdie Bell, the first Mrs. Kimble: an old-fashioned Southern gal that Ken Kimble has left, along with their two young children. Depressed and often drunk, Birdie never quite gets over her husband’s abandonment — and is never able to hold down a job, let alone raise her kids.
- Joan Cohen, the second Mrs. Kimble: a more modern woman accustomed to holding her own in the fast-paced, male-dominated field of journalism. She meets Ken Kimble at a time when she is most vulnerable: her father has died, she is packing up his sprawling Florida estate and she has just lost a breast to cancer.
- Dinah Whitacre, the third and last Mrs. Kimble: Birdie’s former babysitter and twenty-five years younger than Ken Kimble. Unhappily married, she ends her affair with her tennis coach to care for her husband after he has a heart attack.
Haigh handles all of her characters deftly and gives each one a fully-fleshed, multidimensional personality, which I now know is a direct result of pre-writing. If that wasn’t achievement enough, she also eloquently alludes to the many definitions of family, the concept of marriage (or partner-hood) as completeness and the idea of perfection — topics I think are timely, timeless and universal.