Author Louise Penny: It’s Personal

You may have heard that Douglas County Libraries is hosting an evening with Louise Penny at the Lone Tree Arts Center (7 p.m. on Tuesday, September 5) in partnership with Tattered Cover Book Store. If you haven’t heard, buy your ticket now — there are only a few left!

Normally, I get these author event notices and think, “That’s cool. We have fun events.” When this one arrived in my inbox, though, I got teary-eyed. Let me tell you why. Note: If you have sensitivities to mildly sad stories, you may want to grab some tissues.

In April 2014, my siblings and I found out our mom had been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. After we got over the shock, each of us kids came up with things to do to support our ailing mom. My brother bought her lots of cancer-fighting foods and did all the heavy lifting around the house. My youngest sister visited almost daily and did the housekeeping. And my middle sister decided we would all shave our heads when mom started chemo so she wouldn’t be the only bald one in the family.

Me? I buddy-read Louise Penny’s books with mom.

Me, Mom & Louise Penny

Actually, it wasn’t quite buddy reading. Mom had been reading Penny’s books for a while. She loved them and had been trying to get me to read them so we could have book chats, but I don’t normally go in for those kinds of stories (Penny insists they’re not cozy mysteries so I won’t call them that). But now that mom was sick, I relented and started with the first book in the Three Pines/Chief Inspector Gamache mysteries, Still Life.

I thought it was OK.

Mom, however, was so excited that I’d read it! She gushed about her favorite character, the crabby old poet Ruth Zardo. She informed me that Ruth gets a duck at some point in the series and that’s the part she really wanted me to get to because Ruth and that duck were her favorites.

 Since I’m such a dutiful and diligent daughter (i.e., because I’m a librarian and these books are super easy for me to get my hands on), I kept on reading and by the time I reached the fourth book, A Rule Against Murder, I was enjoying the stories far more than I’d expected.

Personal bragging right about A Rule Against Murder: Mine is the most popular review on Goodreads. I’ve copied an excerpt from that review because it explains how this project went:

So, here’s a stupid conversation I had with my mom last week while we were sitting in the waiting room between doctors’ appointments.
Me: “Oh, hey, I’m listening to the next Louise Penny book.”
Mom (perks up): “Which one?”
Me: “It’s either the fourth or the fifth. It’s the one that takes place in the lodge out in the wilderness and there are snotty rich people there while Gamache and his wife, Rene Marie, are celebrating their anniversary.”
Her: “…?”
Me [SPOILER!]: “The daughter is killed by the statue of her father? The rich family had all come together to remember the dad by putting a statue of him in the garden of this lodge? There’s a big storm and, afterward, the gardener finds the girl squished under the knocked-over statue?”
Her: “I don’t think I’ve read that one.”
Me (putting it down to chemo amnesia): “Oh, I’m sure you have. Like I said, it’s the fourth or the fifth one. Ruth Zardo’s duck hasn’t even begun to feature prominently. It was only born in the last book and Three Pines hasn’t even shown up in this book. I don’t know what else happens yet, I’m not that far in so I can’t tell you anything else, but I’m sure you’ve read it.”
We look at Jim. He shakes his head and shrugs.
Mom: “Well…I haven’t read these in order. I probably never read this one.”
Me: “WHAT? You’ve been making me read these so we could talk about them, but you haven’t even been going in order?”
Her: “I just wanted you to read about the duck. The old lady and the duck are my favorite part.”

Alright, well, I am reading these in order and the overall story, it is growing on me.

The mystery in this particular installment was actually kind of weak. I’d give it two stars. I’d come up with a far twistier Who/Why/How and was disappointed in the actual results.

But who cares?
I’m not reading these for the crime-solving element. I’m reading these for a duck, because my mom told me to, and I’ve become fond of Chief Inspector Gamache and his wife and the village of Three Pines.

I want to say that our reading time together fixed everything and she beat stage 4 lung cancer, that she is currently out puttering around in the garden. That didn’t happen. She died in July 2016. Don’t worry, it was a good death; she went with the rain, surrounded by family — and a rainbow appeared afterward.

I also wish I would have read these faster so we could have discussed that infernal duck, but she lost interest in books shortly after I finished the fifth book, The Brutal Telling, so I stopped reading them myself.

However, after she died, I started back up, maybe as a way to stay close to her. Appropriately, the sixth book is called Bury Your Dead. I thought it would do me in, but it didn’t; it was actually comforting to return to the small town and its denizens and to a mystery that would be solved tidily.

A Special Gift

I want to thank Louise Penny for giving me all that, for providing common ground for me and my mother, for giving me a warm hearth, as it were, to which I could retreat after everything was over. Obviously, I should go and listen to her talk on September 5, but I worry that I’ll just sit in the back and cry, which may not be the best representation of Douglas County Libraries. And, really, what author wants a crier in the audience?

Nevertheless, I hope you’ll go. And if you haven’t read her books, give them a try, even if they’re not really your cuppa. There’s a chance you’ll fall in love with the characters like I did and they can become a comfort to you in trying times.

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