Trigger warnings for drug abuse and incest.
Mona has a strange life. Not only does she have a gift for finding odd people, she also has a past that makes it hard for her to even see why she should try for some unknown “better.” When people ask her what she does for a living, she notices that they never like the blunt answer. Mona is a cleaning lady. She’s not cleaning houses while also putting herself through college or working on her art. She sees nothing wrong with being “just” a house cleaner. In Pretend I’m Dead, by Jen Beagin, we start to see what makes Mona tick and all of the things that have happened to her (and her clients and friends) to take them off the expected path.
We meet Mona while she is still in Massachusetts. She’s been cleaning houses with her cousin for some time, while also working at a needle exchange in Lowell. But things are about to change for Mona. First, her cousin sells her cleaning business to a woman who eventually fires Mona. Second, and more devastating for Mona, the boyfriend she met at the needle exchange loses his sobriety and commits suicide. With nothing left to hold her in Massachusetts, Mona follows her boyfriend’s advice to go to New Mexico.
In New Mexico, Mona meets a series of people who (for once, it seems) want to help her. But where her cousin encouraged Mona to go to therapy and take prescription medication, Mona’s new acquaintances recommend everything from macrobiotic diets to psychic-guided meditation. Between the advice and reaching out to her alcoholic (and, we discover, monstrous) father, Mona starts to recover memories of terrible things she suppressed from years ago that have been subconsciously and physically haunting her ever since.
Put like this, Pretend I’m Dead sounds very grim and not very appealing. A plain plot summary doesn’t capture how funny and quirky this book can be. It definitely doesn’t capture the amazingly drawn characters. Not only is Mona brilliantly realized, I loved how Beagin was able to create characters like Betty the Psychic or “Yoko and Yoko,” Mona’s cult-of-two neighbors. The characters in Pretend I’m Dead are people one might brush past on our way to somewhere else. But because Mona doesn’t fit into mainstream life, her world is full of people who also either reject or fall out of the mainstream. It might be harder for them to make money and they mostly don’t have health insurance, they have all found the freedom for complete self-expression. As I watched these characters rally around Mona (without her asking), I started to realize that the mainstream doesn’t have what Mona needs to find peace.
The only issue I had with Pretend I’m Dead is that it ends on a not-quite-cliffhanger. I haven’t read the sequel, but I’ve bought a copy so that I can find out what happens to Mona next. Other readers may want to have the second book, Vacuum in the Dark, on deck for when they finish Pretend I’m Dead.