This unusual book begins with the narrator obliquely letting us know that something has happened, and it has to do with Jean and Jean's friends. The prologue ends with, "And here in Kotemee, all anyone can say now is, 'Thank God I was never a good friend of Jean Vale Horemarsh.'" Then the story backtracks to what began it all: Jean's mother's painful, lingering death.
The book's ironic and subdued tone reminds me so much of the television shows "Desperate Housewives," "Pushing Daisies," "Six Feet Under" and "Twin Peaks." Like them, Practical Jean is an odd dramedy, a term that some media wit coined to indicate both comedic and dramatic aspects. (As Jean might say, "Isn't that a sweet phrase?") There's a wink to the audience that includes them in the joke. Irony leaks through every crack in this book.
Back to Jean's mother's death. Jean and her mother had a difficult relationship, but it was up to Jean to take care of her mother during her last few months of life. Afterwards, Jean knew that she didn't want anyone she loved to die the way her mother did: unhappy, in pain, old, disabled, with regrets. So she sets out to find out what would make her best girlfriends happy. She would do whatever it took to make them happy. Then she would kill them.
Jean is insane but her motivation has a certain logic. Wouldn't you want someone you loved to be happy? Trevor Cole smartly inserts flashbacks to Jean's childhood and teenage years. They provide a pathos that contrasts with and will carry the reader through the bizarre plans Jean makes.
Drama, comedy, pathos, told with an ironic voice. If the book isn't speaking to you within the first 20 pages, give up because it only gets weirder.
Here are a few quotes to help you decide whether you want to read this book:
On finding Jean's inspiration: "…[A] pre-idea, a vague and smoky intuition, was beginning to form in Jean's mind, gather and condensing into something potentially powerful, potentially great, like a mob massing before a riot."
On her husband Milt: "In both hands she took the heavy cheeks of his face, felt the smooth, shaved skin against her palms, and steered his head toward her the way she might move a roast of beef, looking for the best place to carve."
At a town gathering: "…[T]he two women were forced to wade through children like Mennonites through fields of flax."