Although it begins with the terrifying experience of her mother Charlie being taken away for psychiatric treatment, The Liars Club by Mary Karr describes her parents’ relationship as starting on good enough terms in chapter 1.
Their early time sounded happy. With the G.I. Bill, they bought a small house in a line of identical small houses. It was more than Daddy had ever dreamed of owning. He was so proud that she had more going on north of her neck than her hairdo that he built bookshelves for her art books, hung her paintings all over the house, and promised someday to construct a studio so she wouldn’t have to keep her easel propped in the dining room.
By chapter 2, however, their fights have already become a regular part of Mary and her elder sister Lecia’s childhood. Some of these have happier endings than others.
Mother threatened divorce a lot of times, and Daddy’s response to it was usually a kind of patient eye-rolling. He never spoke of divorce as an option. If I asked him worried questions about a particularly nasty fight, he’d just say I shouldn’t talk bad about my mother, as if even suggesting they might split up insulted her somehow. In his world, only full-blown lunatics got divorced. Regular citizens in a bad marriage just hunkered down and stood it.
Once I heard Daddy roar up out of sleep when Mother had apparently dumped a glass of vodka on him, after which she broke and ran for the back door. We got into the kitchen in time to see him dragging her back to the kitchen sink, where he systematically filled three glasses of water and emptied them on her head. That was one of the rare nights that ended with them laughing. In fact, it put them in such a good mood that they took us out to the drive-in to see The Night of the Iguana while they nuzzled in the front seat.
Their parents’ relations get strained by Charlie’s mother having to have her leg amputated and succumbing some time later to cancer at the age of fifty. Chapter 6 describes a time of near-constant fighting, with some very distressing memories created on Mary’s birthday.
Sometime after New Year’s, two bad things jump-started my parents into an evil stretch—drinking and fighting. Mother blames Daddy for this, and I suspect if Daddy had ever talked about such things, he could have argued that it all started with Mother. It’s one of those chicken-and-egg problems. Daddy might have said Mother’s drinking and mulligrubbing drove him out of the house. Mother said that Daddy just bailed out during Grandma’s cancer and after the funeral, which absence set her to drinking. I don’t know who or what to blame.
By chapter 9, the inevitable divorce that has seemed imminent for so long is finally discussed and decided. Their grandmother’s death leaves Charlie Marie with an inheritance, which enables her to set up home in Colorado, far from Mary’s father, Peter Karr, who continues to live and work in Leechfield, Texas.
I can’t recall how they announced the divorce. Daddy just sat heavy on the far end of that curvy couch. He was leaned over with his elbows on his knees, his big rawboned hands dangling toward the floorboards. His head hung down at the angle a bull’s does at the end of a fight, when he’s lost a lot of blood and the shoulder muscles have been picked at and stabbed so he can no longer lift that head to make a charge. Big tears fell from Daddy’s eyes onto the floorboards. He didn’t even bother to wipe at them.
Chapter 13, which marks the end of part 2 of the book is really significant in terms of several important turning points. On the one hand, it marks another abysmal point for Mary and Lecia, when their mother picks up a gun to shoot Hector, her husband and their stepfather. On the other, it leads to Lecia taking the initiative to call their father and ask for him to send tickets for them to reach Texas once again. Their journey by air has an unexpected detour, as the person who has been sent to accompany them is drunk and they end up boarding a flight to Mexico. However, after many kindnesses encountered from the stewardesses and the authorities at Mexico, they are able to be reunited with their father.
Mary Karr shares a small glimpse of what she feels for her sister Lecia as she looks at her sleeping on the flight to Texas.
Surely hope was for boneheads. Surely any goodwill God held for my future was spent. Hell, I’d wished my own sister dead a few days back. I glanced over at her glossy blond head tipped in sleep. The rough red blanket was pulled clear to her chin. Just like a kid, I thought. I wanted to shake her shoulder and tell her how much I loved her, but she would have said to pipe down.
Meeting their father as they get off the plane is one of the most satisfying moments in the book.
There was no clear boundary Daddy ever crossed over, no second he assembled fully before us out of fog. He just gradually got brighter and denser till he was heaving us both up in his arms. He’d been drinking black coffee during his shift, the coffee that poured like tar from the foreman’s beat-up percolator. That coffee brought my whole former Daddy back. I knew the solvent he used to strip grease from his hands, and the Lava soap applied with a fingernail brush. His chin bristles scraped my neck. And he must have been sweating from damp or work or worry, for the Tennessee whiskey he’d stood on the tarmac sipping was like fresh-cut oak coming off him. I could feel Lecia’s arms on the other side of him hugging, and for once, she didn’t swat me away, like my hug was messing hers up. For once, our arms reached around the tall rawboned bulk of him to make a cage he fit right into.
It is after they have begun to stay with their father that he asks them to pray for the return of their mother, even though he has never been a religious man. And by the end of part 2 of the book, she does return.
She’d spent or been cheated out of every cent of her inheritance. So she came back not just broke but deep in debt. And she stayed. She stayed with Daddy till his death, stayed well into her own dotage.
In the final part of the book, Mary Karr’s mother takes on the caregiver duties for Peter Karr after he has had a stroke that leaves him bed ridden. On his part, every time Mary is trying to coax him to have some food, he first questions, “Yamma?” because he needs reassurance about where her mother is and if she has eaten.
It is in chapter 15 that Mary finally learns the reason for her mother’s deep-seated unhappiness and despair. She finds out that her mother had married as a mere teenager and had two children, a boy and a girl, who were snatched away from her by her husband and mother-in-law. She kept marrying men subsequently, with whom she hoped she had a chance to reclaim her children and bring them home. But none wanted the responsibility, and by the time she married Mary’s father, whom she is sure would have taken them on, the children have grown and don’t want to come. This final revelatory moment is what closes the book on an abundantly loving and forgiving note. In the end, Mary Karr visualizes death as being one more threshold for us to cross to be with the ones we love.
The sunset we drove into that day was luminous, glowing; we weren’t.
Though we should have glowed, for what Mother told absolved us both, in a way. All the black crimes we believed ourselves guilty of were myths, stories we’d cobbled together out of fear. We expected no good news interspersed with the bad. Only the dark aspect of any story sank in. I never knew despair could lie. So at the time, I only felt the car hurtling like some cold steel capsule I’d launched into onrushing dark.
Still, the image pleases me enough: to slip from the body’s tight container and into some luminous womb, gliding there without effort till the distant shapes grow brighter and more familiar, till all your beloveds hover before you, their lit arms held out in welcome.