Book Review: PRETEND I’M DEAD, a cleaning woman’s life changes after she dates “Mr. Disgusting”

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Jen Beagin

When Mona was a child and her parents divorced, she was sent to live with Sheila, a paternal aunt who raised her. Sheila owned a cleaning business, and Mona worked with her until Sheila sold the company so she could move to Florida. Without friends or her aunt, Mona had a routine of work and volunteering at a needle exchange. There, she noticed a much older man she called “Mr. Disgusting” who caught her attention because he always carried a book with him. He was gone several months, at rehab it turns out, and when he returned, he gave Mona his number. They had an intense love affair that ended tragically, but one of the last things he said to her was to leave Lowell and set out for somewhere new, maybe Taos.

Mona, susceptible to suggestion, loaded up and headed to New Mexico. She lived in a two-unit house, the other unit occupied by Nigel and Shiori who made and performed with experimental instruments. Mona thought they were propositioning her for a three-way, but really, they could tell she was in pain and wanted to help. With few other skills, she started a cleaning business though which she encountered a medley of characters, including a cancer patient and a self-proclaimed psychic, who she got to know by not just by spending time with them but also by snooping.

Pretend I’m Dead has the tone of dark comedy, starting with Mona’s sense of humor and radiating from there. Mona consistently reads situations incorrectly and engenders misunderstandings. Though she is often wildly wrong about situations, she also has interesting insights into people. Her role as a cleaning person permeates her outer world–she always notices dust, dirt, and mold and sees nature as it relates to the color of cleaning products (e.g., blue as Windex), though she doesn’t bring that meticulous nature to her inner world.

Her psyche wasn’t scarred just by her exile from her parents. She had a complicated and difficult relationship with her father, though she has normalized it enough that she hasn’t questioned it or worked through it. And while she mentions her mother and her numerous phobias, she doesn’t play much of a role in Mona’s psychology. Her typical response to her past is a form of denial, a pretending she’s dead to that part of her childhood.

A sequel, Vacuum in the Dark, is coming out this year, and I am looking forward to reading it.