Book Review: Why Stuff Matters by Jen Waldo

Why Stuff Matters is the second book written by author Jen Waldo. Her debut novel Old Buildings in North Texas was a funny, quirky, and slightly dark work of fiction that felt truly original (you can find my review here). This novel was a strong follow up to her first and did not disappoint – I loved it! While the author has returned to her Caprock, Texas setting, this is a standalone book. Read on to learn more about the book and author.

I was provided a copy of the book for review purposes; this post may contain affiliate links.

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WHY STUFF MATTERS
by
JEN WALDO

Sub-genre: Literary Fiction / Humor
Publisher: Arcadia Books
Date of Publication: June 4, 2019 (US)
Number of Pages: 212

Book Cover of Why Stuff Matters

When Jessica, a grieving widow, inherits an antique mall from her mother she also inherits the stallholders, an elderly, amoral, acquisitive, and paranoid collection. 

When one of the vendors, a wily ex-con named Roxy, shoots her ex-husband, she calls on Jessica to help bury the body and soon Jessica is embroiled in cover-ups, lies, and misdirection. Into this mix comes Lizzie, Jessica’s late husband’s twelve-year-old daughter by his first marriage, who’s been dumped on Jessica’s doorstep by the child’s self-absorbed mother and it soon becomes apparent that Lizzie is as obsessed with material possessions as Jessica’s elderly tenants. 

Why Stuff Matters is a compelling ode to possession, why people like things and the curious lengths they will go to keep them. Returning to her fictional Caprock, Waldo turns her wry wit on the lives of those afraid to let go.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Why Stuff Matters by Jen Waldo is not a long book, but it delivers a lot in its 212 pages!

I confess: I read this in one sitting, I couldn’t put it down, and I struggled to write this review because I didn’t feel like I was capturing why it was so good (in light of the disreputable characters and unlikable, um, activities.)

What I will tell you is that it is a delight. An outrageous, messy, cheeky, and sometimes frustrating delight.

While some of these seniors could be simply described as colorful, others are (intentionally) remarkable in their varying degrees of decrepitude, and the whole lot are greedy, manipulative, and mercenary to such a degree that you can’t help but laugh. Most of them are seven degrees of shady and just as paranoid, and I was caught between being appalled by their behavior and laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. (Lawrence, the owner of the Christmas-themed booth, is the only of them who has any redeeming qualities, bless him.) So yes, to sum it up, this is a cast of characters that are as unlikeable as they are unwittingly entertaining!

Jessica is the owner of the antique mall which she inherited from her mother. She struggles to strike a balance between making the building and business more functioning while honoring her mother’s memory and practices.

She’s no angel, though, with her own share of flaws, and with a moral compass that is more than a bit questionable. Her participation in Roxy’s, erm, situation was at times so calm and matter-of-fact that it was hard to digest. It becomes apparent, however, that much of her choices are driven by grief, a grief that has made her disconnect or check out, and this humanizes her.

Waldo does well to make me equally uncomfortable and yet protective of the spunky, manipulative, and emotionally messed-up twelve-year-old Lizzie, who has been dumped unceremoniously on Jessica for the summer.

The author’s voice is strong; she writes with a wry wit that does well to balance the sadness just below the surface. The pacing is quick and the characterization is vivid. While her supporting cast is colorful and infuriating but uncomplicated, her main characters of Jessica and Lizzie are spunky and tired and messy and deeply flawed. They grabbed my attention from the start and held it, even when I questioned (and maybe had to suspend disbelief) why Jessica did what she did.

The plot makes no apologies or excuses for some of the less that savory things that occur. It’s a story about grief and resilience and maybe a bit of self-discovery – mixed in with a lot of farce.

Throughout the story, a recurrent theme is how the vendors mark up their goods for far more than they are worth, leaving much of it destined to linger on shelves, coated in layers of dust. There is so much dust lingering in the merchandise, and thus in the building, in fact, that the vendors suffer frequent respiratory illnesses. It shouldn’t be funny, but it is. And ultimately, it swings back to the title of the book and why these things hold such value to them (ignoring their inherent greed, of course):

The reason these people gather these things, display them like they’re precious, and place such high prices on them is because they identify so closely with them.

Out of date, replaced, worn, unclaimed, underappreciated, destined for the trash heap

Jen Waldo, Why Stuff Matters

Why Stuff Matters is a book that made me think and feel as well as laugh. There is a lot that is pure outrageousness, from the gun-wielding Roxy to the vendor who sells used cremation urns – still holding their original occupants. Ultimately, Jen Waldo wrangles a story and an ending out of a mess of a situation and leaves you hoping for the best.

quote from Why Stuff Matters

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Jen Waldo is author of Why Stuff Matters

Jen Waldo lived in seven countries over a thirty-year period and has now settled, along with her husband, in Marble Falls, Texas. She first started writing over twenty years ago when, while living in Cairo, she had difficulty locating reading material and realized she’d have to make her own fun. She has since earned an MFA and written a number of novels. Her work has been published in The European and was shortlisted in a competition by Traveler magazine. Old Buildings in North Texas and Why Stuff Matters have been published in the UK by Arcadia Books. Jen’s fiction is set in Northwest Texas and she’s grateful to her hometown of Amarillo for providing colorful characters and a background of relentless whistling wind. 

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Comments

  1. Great Review! I agree that this book was definitely a frustrating delight.

    • I swear, my first draft could have partly dissuaded people from reading it. I give Jen Waldo mad props for just being able to write the blurb and I’d love to know what her elevator pitch was for it!!!

  2. Kristine Hall says

    OUTSTANDING review. Thank you for making me itch to get this book read. I’m going to take a sick day and do it in one sitting.

  3. Great review. I like quirky characters, but these might be a bit over the line for me. LOL Still, I think I’ll check out the book to make a decision.

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