Friday, January 15, 2010

The Pursuit of Alice Thrift; The Quality of Life Report; Southern Fried

E-mail only, May 2005
Just to get us in the mood for summer--and if that seems early, remember my internal calendar is based in Alabama--a look at the fiction shelf.

The Pursuit of Alice Thrift
Elinor Lipman (2003, Random House)

The Quality of Life Report
Meghan Daum (2003, Viking)

Southern Fried
Cathy Pickens (2004, St. Martin's Press)

Not just fiction, friends, but Chick Lit: all three of our heroine narrators are going through life changes that make them ask the big questions, like 'What should I do with my life?' and 'Where do I belong?'

Elinor Lipman's Alice Thrift is, in one way, exactly where she belongs; she's a surgical resident, who all her life has suffered the social gracelessness reputedly common to surgeons. She's swept off her feet--sort of--by Ray Russo, who gives her the flowers-and-candy treatment so relentlessly that it seems less trouble to marry him than to figure out why she doesn't really want to. She's busy, after all, and not altogether certain that she'll make it through the first year as an intern. (I can tell you that the marriage is a disaster, because Alice tells us so herself, right up front.)
Now, who here hasn't at some time accepted a date, because, what the heck, you might turn out to be wrong, and have a good time? The disaster that is Ray happens to Alice because she isn't really paying attention, which is a neat trick for Lipman--to show us through her own eyes all that Alice is missing. And fortunately, she is a decent enough person to attract other friends and allies around the hospital, and we can believe the good they see in her. What Ray sees in her is a puzzlement, and feels rather phony, even to Alice; but she has a moment of clarity in just the nick of time.

In Megan Daum's The Quality of Life Report, Lucinda Trout enjoys much wider horizons than Dr. Thrift, but shares many of the same work/life conundrums. Is her immediate boss just cranky, or possibly evil incarnate? Are the ideas you talk yourself into the best ideas? Lucinda talks herself into a lulu--she moves from New York to a small city two thousand miles west of Central Park, to send back televised reports on the part of the country where one-room apartments don't cost two thousand dollars a month.
As the older narrator is embarrassed to confess, this amounts to cultural slumming on an impressive scale. Young Lucinda secretly imagines that midwestern standards are so far below those of New York that she'll receive an instant promotion in popularity, attractiveness, wit and all-around genius. Indeed, she is welcomed with open arms by the local liberal-hippie contingent, the crowd that runs the public tv station and the Coalition of Women. And she manages to send back a few reports on quaint local customs, even if she has to contrive them herself: it's the first Barn Dance they've been to in many a moon, but her local friends are up for it. (Unfortunately, of course, they're too chubby and badly dressed to appear on television in New York, unless they are actually confessing to methamphetamine abuse.)
The cultural clash is often very funny, in a painful way. Lucinda continues to describe Prairie City as a New Yorker would see it ("There are lesbians in the midwest?"), but her problems take on a reality and seriousness undreamt of by that old self. Faced with the empty propane tank, the boyfriend with three children and no money, and the growing awareness that her friends know she's been condescending to them but like her anyway--Lucinda gets to quit fantasizing about being a good, spiritual person and actually become one.

Moving even deeper into the realms of brain candy, Cathy Pickens's Southern Fried is a competent murder mystery; but it's also a coming-home novel with a real sense of place. Avery Andrews is a lawyer who has jumped off the corporate ladder (evil boss) in Columbia, S. C., and retreated upstate to her home town of Dacus. Pickens gives us a nice sense of why that's such a great distance: she was a loner in Columbia, but Avery has People in Dacus, including a great-aunt who feels free to drum up law business for her over cheese straws and petit fours.

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