I can’t believe I neglected to review this for so long! The Assembler of Parts was our book club’s pick way back in March – the author Raoul Wientzen, a sweet older gentleman, is one of our most spirited members and we were all eager to see how his own book would hold up to the criticism. Well, it was awesome, and I’m not just saying that because I like him as a person or because I was dazzled by the star-spangled plot-relevant cover.
Eight year old Jess, born missing thirteen body parts, is reviewing the story of her existence under the watch of a deity she calls the Assembler of Parts. Though at first she blames him for painstakingly putting her together, soon she begins to understand the repercussions of her disability on the people in her life – including her guilt-ridden grandmother, alcoholic family friend Cassidy, and team of doctors – whom she heals through her very imperfections. But when her family and medical team are thrust under suspicion of neglect after her death, the true purpose of her life finally becomes apparent.
Even for someone who’s not a super fan of children, a child’s death is terribly sad, and Jess’ equanimity in the face of it is humbling. During her short life, she suffered from Hilgar’s syndrome, which has rendered her thumbless, deaf, with holes in her heart, and a myriad of other symptoms. Yet, she was keenly intelligent and inquisitive as well as kind. For example, the cover comes from her love of constellations, which she uses to bond with her initially-distant father and later to overcome jealously for her normal younger sister. I normally have a tough time with child protagonists, but Jess defied my expectations.
One of my favorite things about this book was it’s examination of spirituality versus religion. There’s a few humorous incidents where Jess stirs up trouble by asking “inappropriate” questions to the priests and nuns at her church. Though they can’t see it, she has a strong faith that defies their conception of God but is no less fervent. As much of a non-believer as I am, I was inspired by Jess, who was so grateful for her life even though the Assembler (to go with Jess’ name for God) dealt her such a tough hand. Other things I loved included the well-rounded supporting cast, who all had dynamic growth arcs through the narrative, particularly Jess’ father, grandmother, and pseudo-godfather Cassidy. Because of Raoul’s background as a doctor, he does an excellent job not only with building realistically complex characters, but also delving into the medical intricacies, along with detailing a medical malpractice lawsuit and child services investigations in the second half of the story.
The first and second parts seem like completely different stories, though they’re obviously connected by the thread of Jess’ observances. The first half is Jess looking back on her life from conception to death, and remembering and forgiving every little event that shaped her. The second half devolves into almost an episode of Law & Order, when a child services investigation launches a criminal suit, causing the motivations and regrets of each character to be examined. Some members were more partial to the first half, but I actually think I preferred the second half because of its faster-paced action orientation.
The only criticisms I had were related to the plot structure – the abovementioned divisiveness between the style of the halves and the framework of Jess reviewing her life as videos in heaven, a device that seemed forced and out of place at times. Especially for a first-time novelist, this book is a beautifully-written, highly-compelling work, although insanely heart-wrenching. I recommend it to fans of the vein of The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time or The Five People You Meet in Heaven as a thought-provoking look at love and loss.