Matt King, who is descended from a Hawaiian princess and the haole who married her and inherited her land, is the primary beneficiary of the family land trust, and he is now trying to decide what to do with the land on behalf of his cousins and family. The trust is in debt and the demand for prime land in Hawaii is enormous. Matt, however, will be making no decisions in the immediate future, however. His thrill-seeking wife Joanie now lies comatose after a boating accident, and her lack of progress alarms the doctors in Honolulu, who have her on life support.
When doctors are forced to honor her living will, Matt wants their daughters to be with him, and in the hospital visiting Joanie while they await her death. Alexandra, a seventeen-year-old model, returns home from boarding school on the Big Island and, accompanied by Sid, a friend from a previous school, determines she will live her own life, even under the eyes of her father at home. Scottie, the ten-year-old, an attention seeker at school and at home, continues to act out.
When Matt discovers that Joanie has been having an affair, to which he had been oblivious, he is at a loss, and his internal dialogue and self-examination begin in earnest. He wonders about her lover and whether he should encourage this "love of her life" to share Joanie's last days in the hospital. His search for Joanie's lover and the resulting discoveries lead to important lessons and new awareness of his own responsibilities.
The clear presentation of events, exceptionally realistic dialogue, and unique imagery give life to this strong debut novel, and the narrative speeds along. The author's insights into Matt's conflicts and his self-examination during his long vigil, along with his daughters' understandable tumult, provide some emotional moments, while dark humor provides some respite from the tension. The subplots, involving the sale of the land, the individual problems of the daughters, the background of Alexandra's friend Sid, and the life of Joanie's lover, are well integrated, and the conclusion is satisfying.
Though the character of Matt is not based on any particular person, Hawaiian readers cannot help but make associations between his background and that of the Big Island's Parker family, giving an aura of "realism" to Matt's exotic background as the heir of a princess. His generosity in wanting to have Joanie's lover share her last moments strains credulity, however, and the peripheral characters often exhibit extreme behavior. A number of unusually dramatic and cinematic moments late in the novel make this a good story, though not necessarily a realistic one. Entertaining, and filled with tugs at the heartstrings, The Descendants captures the life of a family at a crossroads, and does so with panache. n Mary Whipple