Review: The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, Purveyor of Superior Funerals, by Wendy Jones
Europa, 2014. 235 pp. $17
A young man, taught all his life to weigh his words, blurts out a fateful question at a picnic. Wilfred doesn’t mean to ask Grace to marry him–they hardly know each other–but he can’t say what he’s really thinking, which is wondering how she gets into and out of her yellow dress. But before Wilfred can retract his proposal, Grace runs off to tell her parents the happy news.
From this whimsical premise comes a funny, poignant, and painful novel, one that deepens as the characters grow. Wilfred thinks he should be able to reverse his gaffe–in fact, there’s another woman he prefers–and, under other circumstances, maybe he could. After all, it’s 1924, a modern age when such a misunderstanding shouldn’t condemn two young people clearly unsuited to one another. But it’s also a small village in Wales, where everyone has an opinion about everyone else’s business–and Wilfred’s business is burying people, a delicate occupation in which his moral reputation matters.
More to the point, Wilfred’s tenuous ability to speak up for himself vanishes under the first blush of confrontation, while poor Grace has even less aplomb. Neither stand a chance against her bullying parents, who force them to the registry office. Wilfred has nobody to intercede for him, because his mother died giving birth to him, whereas his father, a kindly, live-and-let-live type, lacks the fire to push back.
But Wilfred’s not the only one imprisoned. His fiancée, who has been less than forthright, is also trapped, a complication that both evens the score and sets up a serious reckoning. The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price becomes a moral tale about the costs of dishonesty and failure to take responsibility.
Jones renders all this in simple, lovely prose, and her metaphors spring naturally out of everyday tasks, so that you say, Of course. Consider Wilfred’s musing about being “unhappily married for eternity” while–when else?–he’s sanding the wood on a coffin:
Being unhappily married might feel a lot like the dread of doing hours of prep–mathematics prep–algebra and logarithms, inescapable problems with no obvious answer, no solution he could ever find, every day for the rest of his life.
With such artistry at Jones’s command, I’m surprised that Grace’s parents, Dr. and Mrs. Reece, come across like Hollywood types, overdrawn to the point of caricature. They’re emotionally abusive, so they’re a hundred percent unpleasant, each and every moment. They have only one concern, their standing in the community, but with one brief exception, Jones never shows them in it. The doctor, for instance, would have been far more believable had everybody thought what a wonderful man he was, a true servant of medicine, unaware that he makes his wife and daughter miserable.
I wonder whether the author thought she had to make the parents absolutely heartless to bring about a certain (and, I think, dubious) decision at the end. But I’m pretty sure Jones could have had gotten the result she wanted in another, subtler way.
Still, I recommend The Thoughts and Happenings of Wilfred Price, an impressive debut from a talented novelist.
Disclaimer: I borrowed my reading copy of this book from the public library.