Book Review: What the Living Do by Susan E Wadds

March 15, 2024

Thirty-seven-year-old Brett Catlin is perhaps more comfortable with animals than people, and even though she handles a fair amount of roadkill, she and her driving partner, Mel, at the road maintenance job where she works, make sure to treat every deceased creature with dignity. But when she is suddenly diagnosed with cancer, she is unable to treat herself the same way, and the bad news triggers an avalanche of repressed trauma—throwing her job, friendships, relationship with her live-in boyfriend Cole and everything else in her life into complete chaos. What The Living Do, writer Susan Wadds’s debut novel from Regal House Publishing, pushes Brett to a breaking point, and as she navigates the murky waters that surround sex, life, and death, and the strange ways they seem to interact with each other, Wadds expertly manipulates her characters for a fast-paced, addictive read which feels surprising, fresh, and ultimately, unexpected. Wadds has written a novel which puts the natural urges and impulses that all humans have into a pressure cooker, and what comes out is a powerhouse of a novel, full of emotion, eros, and depth.

From the first page, we are captivated by Brett and her voice. She is funny, cynical, and likable, and more importantly, she is kind and willing to learn. Some of the most affecting scenes, early in the novel, are when she expresses an interest in learning indigenous prayers from Mel, who is her partner working to remove roadkill . Although Brett is likable and readable, the instability in her personality, especially around romantic and sexual relationships—exemplified by her ambivalence for her live-in boyfriend, Cole, who is ten years younger—creates a much-appreciated tension in these early pages, easily inviting the reader in and settling us into her chaotic inner life.

Pacing wise, this is quick—easily devoured in one sitting, Wadds confidently pushes the plot along, bringing us from scene to scene without much padding. Each moment in Brett’s life seems urgent, often poignant, and usually efficient. There’s a lot packed into this novel, and Wadds doesn’t waste a minute. As the various threads weave together—Mel, whose indigenous background and spiritual practice become a touchstone for Brett as she works through her illness; Nora, Brett’s friend who has recently lost a child through a miscarriage; Cole, her younger boyfriend; and several other key characters—Wadds expertly braids the narratives, together, switching from moment to moment with a deft and practiced hand.

Without wasting too much time on exposition or backstory, Wadds leaves breadcrumbs that hint at Brett’s troubled past, including partially repressed trauma, and as a reader, we become more and more entranced as the book continues on. The clues that Wadds drops are just enough to entice the reader to keep going, and Brett’s voice—strong, conversational, and likable—adds to the ease of quickly and eagerly moving through this novel. As the story unfolds and we learn more about Brett, we begin to understand her motivations and how she has become such a frustrating character, both for those who love her and for the reader. Brett may not also be the most agreeable narrator, but Wadds has made her into the kind of compelling narrator who will live in readers’ heads long after they have finished the novel. Her convictions, her unreliability, her bad and impulsive decisions in contrast with her good and loving ones—all of them come together to create a flawed, but redeemable character, and most certainly a memorable one.

As Brett begins to panic after her cancer diagnosis, the novel begins to panic, too, and the writing becomes frantic, frenetic, and fractured, perhaps mirroring her own inner life. The control over Brett and her interiority that Wadds displays is technically impressive. As she adjusts the pace, we move with her. This novel is an exercise in control—for Brett as she tries to control all the chaos in her life, and for Wadds as she leads us expertly through this story.

Themes of motherhood, sexual abuse, sex addiction, and intimacy are all deeply present in this novel. Brett and the characters around her are all exploring these ideas from different angles, from Nora who desires a child, Cole who thinks that a baby will save his and Brett’s relationship, to Brett who is dealing with the aftermath of childhood trauma and abuse. The novel attacks these problems and concerns in a nuanced and careful way. Ultimately, Wadds has said it all in the title: What The Living Do. This is what human beings do—they are intimate, whether that is as mothers, daughters, lovers, friends or everything in between. This realization allows for growth for Brett, and a natural, satisfying progression throughout the novel.

What The Living Do is Wadds’ debut, but it is surely not going to be her only offering. Her technical skill, ability to manipulate characters, and devotion to interrogate the more difficult aspects of the human psyche have generated an interesting, intellectually vigorous, and emotionally robust novel. Although Brett’s story may be completed for now, this reader is excited to see what tools of the trade Wadds is going to pick up next.

Publisher: Regal House Publishing

Publication date: March 18, 2024

Reviewed by Joanna Acevedo. 

Joanna Acevedo (she/they) is the Pushcart-nominated author of three books and two chapbooks. Her work has been seen across the web and in print, including Free State Review, The Rumpus, and The Adroit Journal. She received her MFA in fiction from New York University in 2021 and also holds degrees from Bard College and The New School. Find her on Twitter at @jo_avocado.


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