One Vacant Chair A Novel

Joe Coomer

Graywolf Press




288 Pages



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Sarah's aunt Edna paints portraits of chairs. Not people in chairs, just chairs. The old house is filled with her paintings, and the chairs themselves surround her work—a silent yet vigilant audience. At the funeral of Grandma Hutton—whom Edna has cared for through a long and vague illness—Sarah begins helping her aunt clean up the last of a life. This includes honoring Grandma's surprising wish to have her ashes scattered in Scotland. As the novel turns from the oppressive heat of Texas to the misty beauty of Scotland, Sarah learns of her aunt's remarkable secret life and comes to fully understand the fragile business of living, and even of dying.


Praise for One Vacant Chair

"Joe Coomer's characters in One Vacant Chair, especially the women, are those friends you've been waiting to meet, and he delivers them with his characteristic delectable language, rich in metaphors and dialect. I savored this novel and can't wait to recommend it to our book clubs!"—Cheryl McKeon, Book Sense

"Surprises and sucker punches keep things lively in this latest from Coomer, a tale of emotional upheavals in a far-flung family about to be flung farther. The family members converge on their original home in Fort Worth, Texas, for a funeral. Grandma Hutton has died at 89, and the bad-tempered old woman will be missed only by Aunt Edna, the daughter who cared for her devotedly for 22 years. This is Aunt Edna's story, narrated by her niece Sarah. Besides working at an elementary school as cafeteria manager, Edna has found time to paint chairs, nothing but chairs (and they will eventually sell for megabucks). The funeral is a splendid set-piece, with Sarah's satirical eye panning the love and guilt, bullying and bitchiness that make up family life. She has her own ax to grind: husband Sam has been cheating on her. Grandma's will is the dramatic high point: she wants her ashes scattered in Scotland. Scotland! Edna has never even been out of state but gamely volunteers to go; Sarah will accompany her (she needs a respite from Sam). Before they leave, taking Grandpa's ashes too, Edna has a surprise of her own: she is going to marry James Laurent, an elderly blind black man who canes chairs. The scenes of these aging lovebirds have a haunting delicacy, but then it's off to Scotland, where the ashes are spread at three different sites, and the satirical edge gives way to Edna's grief and Sarah's agonizing over Sam. The mood becomes even more somber with Edna's revelation that she's dying from pancreatic cancer . . . An enjoyable read, without a dull page."—Kirkus Reviews

"In his fifth novel, Coomer displays his unique comic voice while returning to his favorite theme of personal regeneration. Sarah has come home to Fort Worth, Texas, to bury her grandmother, who took to her deathbed some 22 years earlier, plagued by a series of mysterious illnesses and waited on hand and foot by her daughter, Edna. Sarah, a designer of Christmas ornaments, and Edna, a painter of enigmatic portraits of chairs, decide to go together to Scotland to fulfill the dead woman's request to have her ashes scattered there. Among the secrets revealed during the long, hot summer are Edna's love for a blind, black neighbor who repairs chairs and whose colorful turns of phrase would give Dan Rather pause and Edna's longtime habit of pilfering silver coins from the school cafeteria where she works, a habit that will pay for their trip and then some . . . peppery humor delivered by a most endearing cast of characters. A wonderful read."—Joanne Wilkinson, Booklist

"Shortly after Sarah finds out that her husband, Sam, has been cheating on her, her grandmother dies. At the funeral, she is surprised to discover that Grandma Hutton's ashes are to be scattered in Scotland by Aunt Edna, who needs a traveling companion. Sarah decides that it is a good time to reorganize her life, so she offers to go. Sarah knows only that her Aunt Edna paints portraits of chairs and has been the 'lunch lady' at the local grade school for 30 years. During their time together, however, she finds out much more, including some things she would rather not know. The journey gives Sarah some perspective concerning the 'big picture,' and she remodels her own life accordingly. By turns witty, droll, silly, and laugh-out-loud funny, Coomer writes with assurance, conveying much about the human condition and the choices people make or have thrust upon them. His story shines with vivid characters in their everyday mode yet offers surprising twists that will keep the reader's interest to the last. Highly recommended."—Joanna M. Burkhardt, Library Journal

"Once again, Coomer presents a wonderfully eccentric cast of characters and delivers a philosophical punch in a comic and poignant novel about life, death and family ties. He plays with oft-used narrative conventions—a funeral that leads to a rebirth, a painter who teaches the art of seeing, a physical journey that leads to spiritual growth—which, in the hands of a lesser writer, might have resulted in a mishmash of feel-good nonsense. But Coomer makes it work. '[L]ike separate drops of condensating water pooling in the bottom of a cold spoon,' a scattered family reconvenes in Fort Worth for the funeral of its crotchety matriarch. Narrator Sarah, an overweight designer of Christmas ornaments trying to cope with her husband's infidelity, decides to remain there after the funeral with her Aunt Edna—a school cafeteria worker, amateur philosopher and a skilled painter of portraits of chairs. Aunt Edna becomes Sarah's guru, advising her on matters of health, love and art as the two women plan to take Grandma Hutton's ashes to Scotland, in keeping with her surprising will. Everything that follows—Aunt Edna's marriage, her death and her posthumous emergence as a major artist—is as inevitable and unexpected as any lover of classic story structure could hope for. And still, the story feels real. Even James (Aunt Edna's boyfriend, a blind black chair repairman) is a fully rounded, believable character who, with his alternative ways of 'seeing,' only occasionally teeters on the edge of symbolism. Coomer's tight focus on the mundane reveals the magical underbelly of everyday life."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Joe Coomer

  • Joe Coomer is the author of Pocketful of Names, Apologizing to Dogs, Beachcombing for a Shipwrecked God, The Loop, Sailing in a Spoonful of Water, and Dream House. He lives in Texas and Maine.