"Why Stuff Matters is a valuable story because it represents something important that we all need to remember: You can’t take it with you when you die."
“Death doesn’t shock me anymore, but it’s starting to inconvenience me.”
Why Stuff Matters by Jen Waldo is a humorous yet melancholy look at aging, death, and the fate of the stuff we leave behind. There is a difference between surrounding yourself with things that bring joy and comfort and hoarding things in a desperate, misguided attempt to give your life meaning.
Jessica is still mourning the loss of her husband and twin baby girls when she inherits from her mother a hot mess of a building full of aging vendors who refuse to stop collecting things to sell and equally refuse to part with anything. The story starts off when a tornado rips through Caprock and leaves Caprock Antiques and Gifts untouched; however, not all the vendors escape the tornado’s wrath. When Pard Kemp is killed, the big question is, who will get his stuff from his booth?
Why Stuff Matters is a valuable story because it represents something important that we all need to remember: You can’t take it with you when you die. But boy, do these old people try to hang on to every scrap. When Jessica’s dead husband’s first wife dumps her twelve-year-old daughter on Jessica’s doorstep for the summer, her already unhappy life becomes even worse. Lizzie’s presence is an unwanted reminder that her own daughters are gone.
The main character, Jessica, has a biting wit that is both entertaining and a bit distressful. Nothing has meaning for her anymore, and being saddled with a child she doesn’t want and having to face the gripes, snipes, and even criminal behavior of her tenants all leave her bitter and indifferent to anyone’s feelings, including her own.
Jen Waldo has a brilliant gift for edgy characterization, and she presents a unique plot that will astound because it takes the everyday matter of aging and hoarding (on both a small and large scale) and dresses it all up in a collection of odd characters, murder, mountains of junk, and the realization that holding on to stuff is sometimes the only thing left that the elderly can control. For the cantankerous vendors in Jessica’s building, it isn’t about the money. It’s about keeping a tight grip on the tangible proof (aka stuff) that shows you are still alive and kicking. What’s easily forgotten is that when you do kick the bucket, your stuff simply changes hands.
Jessica’s journey in Why Stuff Matters is a good one. Her shift in attitude as this story moves along is slow and subtle, but it’s there. Jessica should not be a likable character by any means, and yet she is. She is sarcastic and often appears uncaring, but perhaps that is simply a thick layer of self-imposed armor against the pain of loss and the fear of future heartache. Either way, Jessica is an excellently fashioned protagonist because she is imperfect, practical to a fault, and determined to strong-arm every situation that life throws at her. Jazzing up the story of a building full of cranky vendors and an even crankier building owner is a murder mystery that is only a mystery to the detective trying to solve it.
Sit back and enjoy the cutting humor, the serious reflection on why stuff actually matters, and the overall enjoyable diversion of this wholly entertaining story. And while you’re at it, you can enjoy Jessica’s uncanny ability to remain aloof even as she sinks deeper into the lives, deaths, and misdeeds of all these stubborn, greedy, and surly people in her life.
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.