First, let me just say that if you list the film version of The Descendants in any kind of “Best of” compilation for writing, directing or acting, then the novel won’t be for you. Quite frankly, I was a little stunned that George Clooney got nominated for an Oscar for his performance- with source material so rich, his performance seems downright stunted.
Remarkably, little was changed in regards to the basic plot and characterization of the key players: A man, Matt King, has to come to terms with the fact that his wife will not be waking up from her coma. His daughters (Alexandra, the wild child who was at odds with her mom, and Scottie, the 10-year-old who is so desperate for any kind of role model, imitates porn stars in the bathroom) both have problems of their own, and as the “back up” parent, Matt finds himself playing catch up and having to abandon the space he had placed between his daughters and himself before the accident.
Matt works as a lawyer, and prides himself on not being a typical lazy, rich man living off of his ancestors’ hard work and good luck. His great-great grandmother was the last princess of Hawaii, and as a result Matt and his cousins own a great deal of prime-time Hawaiian real estate. In order to alleviate themselves of the cost and burden of the land, the cousins have decided to sell. Matt gets the deciding vote in the sale, but because of his wife’s accident, Matt had barely had time to look over the documents. While this is a huge part of the film adaption, in the book it is used as a way to bring characters together and tie together overarching themes. Thank God, too, because seriously? This guy’s wife is dying and his daughter is taking polaroids of her mother wasting away in a coma–he’s got bigger shit going on here.
The best part about the novel, ironically enough, is the character we get to hear about, hate, and judge, but never meet: Matt’s wife, Joanie . She should be an extremely unlikeable character— she is the “party mom”: the one who drinks with her daughters friends, flirts with the bartender, and encourages her 15 year old daughter to pose seductively in bikinis for trashy postcards. She was also cheating on her husband and advocated for her lover’s business proposal on the sale of the King family land. However, Hemmings is able to create a character that is utterly human through the love and devotion Matt King feels for his wife. Even though Joanie cheated on him, he still cannot forget the many years they shared together, and he misses her. He misses the way the knew each other’s habits and desires, the way they balanced each other out, and their history together. Matt loves her so much that he ventures out to find her lover, so that the man his wife loved would have the opportunity to say goodbye.
The book is beautifully written, and its characters come alive on the page. Kaui Hart Hemmings is able to turn a tragic cuckold into a redeeming and, one could argue, noble father. In Hemmings’ world, love and history tend to merge together, becoming inseparable—it is our shared history that allows us to love so deeply that we truly believe that no one could ever know/love/care for that other person the way we do. Once that bond is forged, it cannot be forsaken.