One-Minute Book Reviews

September 4, 2007

My Labor Day Reading … Jean Webster’s Comic Novel, ‘Daddy-Long-Legs’

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A classic novel of life at a women’s college in the early 20th century

Over the weekend, I read comic novels — pure fun — as I braced for all those holiday books that publishers will start heaving at us this week. Did you know that some art-book houses release their entire line between September and November instead of spreading it out over 12 months?

I started by rereading Jean Webster’s comic gem, Daddy-Long-Legs (Penguin, $13, paperback), one of the most delightful novels ever written about the education of a young American woman. First published in 1912, the book is reported to have sold 100,000 copies in its first year in print, a vast — but well-earned — number back then. Daddy-Long-Legs is told through the letters of a high-spirited orphan to the male patron who sends her to college, inspired by Webster’s education at Vassar. And because the epistolary novel is disappearing, that alone might give it a period charm.

But its great appeal lies in the voice of its blunt, funny and perceptive heroine. As Michael Patrick Hearn wrote in an afterword to the 1988 edition that preceded the newer one from Penguin

“When the press badgered Woodrow Wilson at his home in Princeton on his presidential plans, the prospective candidate adroitly dodged the question by stating that he found it far easier to talk about the recent past than the immediate future. And he much preferred to discuss the book he had just finished reading, Daddy-Long-Legs, ‘the most charming story in years.'”

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 29, 2007

Virginia Ironside’s Comic Novel, ‘No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club’

An English grandmother hasn’t had sex in five years and isn’t sure she wants it

No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club: Diary of a 60th Year. By Virginia Ironside. Viking, 231 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

Is a backlash building against all those articles that say that you’re never too old to don a zip line and swing through a Costa Rican jungle? First Nora Ephron told us in I Feel Bad About My Neck that it’s “sad” to be over 60. Now Virginia Ironside writes in this fictionalized diary that the great thing about being old is that there are so many things you can’t do. “You no longer have to think about going to university, or go bungee jumping!” her heroine tells an obtuse therapist. “It’s a huge release!”

This concept could be a tougher sell in U.S. than in Britain, where Ironside writes an advice column for the Independent. Her diarist, 60-year-old Marie Sharp, calls herself “old.” How many Americans in their 60s do you know who describe themselves that way? Don’t look to Ironside to soft-soap you with you with euphemisms like “older” for “old” and “midlife” for “anywhere between 40 and death.”

If Marie is blunt, she isn’t mean-spirited. She is kind, cheerful, active and devoted to her friends and a newborn grandson who lives near her home in west London. And although she hasn’t had sex in five years, she doesn’t lose sleep over it. She’s thinking of giving it up – if a nice, rich, attractive childhood friend doesn’t change her mind.

No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club isn’t as funny or polished as Bridget Jones’s Diary, or the comic masterpiece from which Helen Fielding’s novel descends, E. M. Delafield’s great Diary of a Provincial Lady. But Ironside’s book has much more to say about being old – sorry, “older” — than bestsellers like The Red Hat Club or Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman. And Marie’s opinions, if not the plausibility of the plot, give her story its own appeal.

Ironside mounts a worthy assault on many popular beliefs that were overdue for it, such as the idea that people help their survivors by planning their own funerals (and that funerals shouldn’t be funerals at all but rather “a celebration” of a life). And Marie is the rare heroine bold — or perhaps reckless — enough to question the motives of book club members: “I think they feel that by reading and analyzing books, they’re keeping their brains lively. But either you’ve got a lively brain or you haven’t.” Naturally, Viking has published a reading group guide the novel.

Best line: “I don’t think those oldies who spend their lives bicycling across Mongolia at eighty and paragliding at ninety, are brilliant specimens of old age. I think they’re just tragic failures who haven’t come to terms with aging. They’re the sort of people who disapprove of face-lifts, and yet, by their behavior, are constantly chasing a lost youth.”

Worst line: Marie makes a show of not wanting to learn Italian but seems unaware that her French needs help. For example, she thinks “Champs-Elysées” and “allô” have no accents. (My computer can’t show the one on the capital e.) Marie also quotes a French guest as saying “allô” in person. The French use “allô” only on the telephone. And isn’t credible that Marie’s guest would say this face-to-face, even as a bastardized “Hello,” when the correct bonjour is universally known. Marie also has an odd way of trying to show a friend that she knew what she “was talking about” in a discussion of AIDS. She speaks of “the HIV virus” when the V in HIV stands for “virus.”

Reading group guides: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to this book was posted on One-Minute Book Reviews on May 29, 2007. You can find the Penguin guide in the reading groups page at

Published: April 2007


You may also want to read: Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck (Knopf, 2006), reviewed on this site on Oct. 14, 2006, and archived with the October posts:

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle She also wrote The Accidental Bride (St. Martins, 1999), a comedy of Midwestern manners, and Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004), a comedy of New York manners

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 28, 2007

A Totally Authorized Reading Group Guide to ‘The Accidental Bride’ by Janice Harayda

10 Discussion Questions
The Accidental Bride
A Comedy of Midwestern Manners

Note: Because of the holiday, I’m taking the day off from reviewing and posting this readers’ guide to The Accidental Bride, my first novel. This differs slightly from the other guides on this site, because I haven’t reviewed the book and am instead using some of the material the publisher sent out when the book came out in hardcover. A guide to my second comedy of manners, Manhattan on the Rocks (Sourcebooks, 2004), appeared on March 14, 2007. You can find it by clicking either on the March posts archive or the Totally Unauthorized Reading Groups Guide category (although the guides to both of my novels, unlike the others on this site, are totally authorized). Jan

One month before her fairy-tale wedding to the third richest man in the second largest city in Ohio, Lily Blair is beset by doubts. She appears to have a charmed life – a budding newspaper career and a five-carat engagement ring from a wonderful man – but can’t decide whether to plunge headfirst into the security of married suburban life or follow her career dreams alone to New York. Her family and friends keep nudging her toward the aisle. But Lily has qualms about a wedding her mother wants to stage like a full-scale military operation. Amid the plans, Lily looks to Jane Austen for inspiration. Can she find what she needs in novels like Pride and Prejudice? The answer doesn’t emerge until the last pages of book that Publishers Weekly called “a witty and wise comedy of manners that pays homage to Jane Austen.”

Questions for Book Clubs and Others

1. Each chapter of The Accidental Bride begins with a quote from Jane Austen. How do these quotes relate to the plot? Do they serve different purposes in the individual chapters and in the novel as a whole? What are the purposes? You may want to compare The Accidental Bride to Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club.

2. Many reviewers noted that the humor in The Accidental Bride is satirical. What are some of the things the novel is satirizing? Does Janice Harayda satirize some of the same things that Austen does?

3. Satire can take many forms. For example, it can be gentle or biting (sometimes both in the work of the same author, as in Austen’s novels). How would you describe the satire in The Accidental Bride?

4. The first sentence of The Accidental Bride reads: “One month before her wedding to the third richest man in the second largest city in Ohio, Lily Blair awoke in the middle of the night and realized that she did not want to get married.” The author doesn’t name that “second largest city.” But you may know that it is Cleveland. (The largest city is Columbus, the capital.) Why you do think the author didn’t name Cleveland? Do you think she did this for legal, literary, or other reasons? How might your reactions to the novel have changed if the author had named Cleveland in the first line?

5. Lily, the heroine of The Accidental Bride, doesn’t want to see a psychiatrist because she doesn’t think many therapists are as wise as writers like La Rochefoucauld, who said, “In love there is always the kisser and the one who gets kissed.” What does this saying mean? Is there a “kisser” and a “one who gets kissed” in The Accidental Bride?

6. Lily also admires another writer who says “love is an agreement on the part of two people to overestimate each other.” Do you think that writer was being serious or facetious or both?

7. A critic for The New York Times wrote in her review of The Accidental Bride that “Harayda is an astute social commentator.” That is, she is saying some things about our society in addition to telling a story. What are some of the things you think she is trying to say?

8. In novels about women in their twenties, the men are often cads. That’s especially true of the heroines’ boyfriends. Lily’s boyfriend, Mark, is different. He is a kind and thoughtful man who is trying to understand the woman he loves. How does this affect the plot and other aspects of the story?

9. Mark is trial lawyer who is forced to defend a company accused – with good reason – of age discrimination. Do you see any parallels between Lily’s situation and that of the older people in the lawsuit (called “Geezers” and “Geezerettes” by their employer)?

10. The Accidental Bride belongs to the genre known as the “comedy of manners,” which consists of fiction that tweaks the customs of a particular group (often a group that is — or sees itself — as upper class). The humor in this genre tends to involve wit and charm instead of slapstick or physical comedy. A classic example is Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest. What are some other plays, movies, or novels that are comedies of manners? Why do you like them?

Praise for The Accidental Bride
“Satire with heart … In a style that careens from Austenesque to Corporate Memo-ese, Janice Harayda has written a farce that dissects the farce of the matrimonial ceremony. Lily is a charming character.”
— Olivia Goldsmith, bestselling author of The First Wives Club

“A thoroughly entertaining first novel.”
— Joyce R. Slater, Chicago Sun-Times

“Sparkling with wit and humor, this is a story that charms.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Harayda’s first novel has plenty of snappy, witty dialog, humorous scenarios, and sexual innuendo.”
Margaret Ann Hanes, Library Journal

“A frothy comedy … Harayda is an astute social commentator.”
— Maggie Galehouse, The New York Times

“Harayda is quick with a quip and merciless at sniping at an unnamed Ohio city … Residents of that city may not find this funny, but everyone else will.”
— Michele Leber, Booklist

“Vigorous wit, playful homage to the winsome heroines of great nineteenth-century novels, and a charming, irresolute heroine make this tale of a woman who doesn’t want to get married an unusually filling trifle.”
— Karen Karbo, San Francisco Chronicle (“Recommended” book)

“Harayda’s sense of the humorously absurd, combined with her gift for timing and fun, make this book readable and fun … Did I ever put it down? No. I read it at breakfast, at dinner, in the bubble bath. I got to liking Lily and wanted to find out what would happen.”
— Wendy Smith, San Diego Union Tribune

“The former book editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Harayda has made Lily a displaced reporter. This gives the author a wonderful chance to skewer newsroom types … half the fun for the reader is helping Lily sort out her misgivings [about her wedding] and figure out which are real and which are only flutters.”
— Kit Reed, St. Petersburg Times

“The Accidental Bride is a worthy counterpart to … Bridget Jones’s Diary [Harayda’s] hand at social satire rivals Austen’s … Lily Blair is a charming heroine … The reader is pleased to go along for the ride.”
Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

“Nicely skewers today’s over-the-top weddings and the whole wedding industry.”
— Linda Brazill, The Capital Times (Madison, WI)

“The Accidental Bride is a delightful romp of a book, both funny and wise and very much a story for our times. In Lily Blair, Jan Harayda has created a contemporary character who outdoes the best of Jane Austen’s most memorable women. When feisty Lily comes to terms with one of the biggest decisions of her life, the reader can do nothing but cheer.”
— Ruth Coughlin, author of Grieving: A Love Story

“True laughs and true lover abound in this galloping romanic comedy. Jan Harayda goes after the smug assumptions of suburban weddings and the absurdity of ‘mandatory’ matrimony. The wit is civilized, the heart is romantic, and the wisecracks are indeed wise.”
— Steve Szilagyi, author of Photographing Fairies

“The Accidental Bride is a charmingly witty, modern-day satirical tale of a woman trying to keep her balance as she teeters on the edge of matrimony.”
Charles Salzberg, co-author of On Clear Day They Could See Seventh Place

Vital Statistics
The Accidental Bride: A Romantic Comedy. By Janice Harayda. St. Martin’s/Griffin, 304 pp., $13.95, paperback.

To invite Janice Harayda to speak to your book group in person or by speakerphone, please use the e-mail address on the “Contact” page of and write “Book Club” in the subject heading of your note.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 13, 2007

Susan Coll’s ‘Acceptance,’ a Send-Up of the College Admissions Race

A Harvard interviewer offers an underage applicant a drink in a novel set in a suburb of Washington, D.C., that teems with overachieving students and micromanaging parents

Acceptance. By Susan Coll. Farrar, Straus & Giroux/Sarah Crichton, 286 pp., $23.

By Janice Harayda

Getting into college is a game of Twister in this tart send-up of an ever-more-contorted application process. Acceptance has more bite and sparkle than the recent Admissions, which it resembles not just in its title but in its themes and structure. But overall it’s as uneven as the transcripts of the students who compete on its pages for spots at Ivy League and other universities.

Coll shows deftly the degradations that applying to favored colleges inflicts on students and parents in a gold-plated suburb of Washington, D.C., where a Harvard alumni interviewer offers an underage applicant a drink and keeps forgetting his name. And she offers trenchant social commentary as she follows several students and their families through the year before graduation. “Didn’t grades fall into the zone of private information, along with age and weight and financial net worth?” a mother wonders as she hears another boasting about a child’s straight A’s.

But Coll undercuts her story with clichés and digressive subplots, and she has such a slack grip on point of view that you never feel as much as you could for her characters. So her book ultimately works better as a critique of the admissions racket than as a novel. Acceptance underscores the folly of turning any school into a grail when, as Coll notes, “Study after study showed that there was no correlation between where a person went to college and his or her future happiness, or even earning power.”

Best line: Many good lines involve a fictitious college in upstate New York that surged in popularity after a statistical error boosted its ranking in U.S. News & World Report. An admissions officer laments that the school annually gets essays from students on “how the historical figure they most closely identified with was Harry Potter.” And until the error in U.S. News, “pretty much anyone who could manage to get the right postage on the envelope had a reasonably good chance of getting in.”

Worst line: Coll’s pervasive trouble with point of view is hard to show in a few lines. An oversimplified example involves the thoughts of a student named Taylor. Three times in one paragraph on page 228, Coll writes, “Taylor wondered” (or “she wondered”). Coll wouldn’t need to keep using that phrase if she had a lock on Taylor’s point of view because we would know who “wondered.” (This is not mainly an issue of redundancy – although it’s that, too – but of control of perspective.) All those “she wondereds” are tin cans tied to the bumper of the story, and similar phrases clatter throughout book. Count the clichés in this line for example of another sort of lapse: “She deduced that despite his best efforts to get a leg up on his peers, at the end of the day a Harvard acceptance was just going to boil down to the luck of the draw.”

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Acceptance was posted on May 13, 2007, and is archived with the May posts.

Editor: Sarah Crichton

Published: March 2007

Furthermore: Coll also wrote Rockville Pike and A Love Story.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Susan Coll’s ‘Acceptance’

10 Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others
Acceptance: A Novel

This guide was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may copy it for use in their reading programs. Other groups that wish to use this guide should link to the site or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce the guide.

Susan Coll sends up the college-admissions race in Acceptance, a novel set in a Washington, D.C., suburb that seethes with brainy students and overinvolved parents. Will the junior class president nicknamed AP Harry (for all his Advanced Placement courses) get into Harvard? Will the troubled Taylor regret sending a kinky essay to a school that’s flying high after a statistical error raised its ranking in U.S. News & World Report? Will the athletic Maya impress any college after she quits the high school swim team? Behind these questions lies the larger one that drives Acceptance: Can any of these students — or their parents — emerge from the year-long frenzy with a scrap of sanity?

Farrar, Straus & Giroux has posted an extensive readers’ guide to Acceptance at that you may want to use at a starting point for your discussions. But like most publishers’ guides, that guide is part of a publicity campaign designed to sell books. It does not encourage criticism, quote negative reviews or suggest that you compare the novel to others on similar topics. For these reasons, the FSG guide may have less depth or promote a less lively conversation than you or your group would prefer. The following Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide is not intended to be comprehensive but to raise questions not covered by the FSG guide.

Questions for Readers

1. In a blurb on the cover, author Kurt Andersen rightly calls Acceptance a “satire.” What does it satirize besides the college-admissions race at a suburban high school?

2. Acceptance has a strong element of social commentary. Early on Coll writes:

“Study after study showed that there was no correlation between where a person went to college and his or her future happiness, or even earning power.” [Page 12]

But some Verona parents act as though their children’s lives will implode if they don’t get into certain schools. Later the admissions officer Olivia Sheraton reflects on the inequities of being female when she notes that “with a skewed ratio of girls to boys applying to liberal arts schools,” the female applicants “were at a disadvantage before they knew what hit them.” [Page 263]

One test of whether social commentary works in a novel is that even if you disagree with the opinions in the book, you accept them because they fit the characters. Another test is whether a book still reads like a novel instead of an editorial. How well does the social commentary work in Acceptance?

3. The most popular satirical novels of recent decades include Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, Jane Smiley’s Moo and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary. If you’ve read any of them, how effective was their satire compared with that of Acceptance? Why?

4. Coll uses omniscient narration, going inside the heads of at least five people (Harry, Taylor, Maya, Grace, Olivia). Directly showing more than one character’s point of view is common in novels. But this technique can have a drawback: Unless handled with skill, it can create distance between the reader and characters or keep you from identifying with any of them. How well does Coll handle this issue?

5. Grace, the mother of AP Harry, is the moral center of the novel. Would Acceptance have been more effective if Coll had told the story from just Grace’s point of view or from hers and Harry’s? Would it have been possible to tell the story that way? In Bridget Jones’s Diary Fielding tells her story strictly from Bridget’s point of view. What effect does this have on how well each novel works?

6. A reviewer on (Constant Reader — Richmond, VA) thought that the “dozens of characters and several subplots muddy this satire about insecure teenagers (and their more insecure parents).” Do you agree or disagree? If you agree, which subplots or characters would you cut to strengthen the story?

7. One of the challenges of using multiple story lines, as Coll does, is that you have to tie them together at the end. How well did Coll do this?

8. Coll sprinkles her novel generously with clichés, such as when she writes that Grace “deduced that despite his best efforts to get a leg up on his peers, at the end of the day a Harvard acceptance was just going to boil down to the luck of the draw.” [Page 127] That sentence has at least five clichés. Clichés can be justified in fiction if they have a literary purpose – for example, if they are used for comic effect or to show that a character is dim. But using clichés is tricky. If you use too many, your writing may seem stale or your characters unoriginal. Does Coll justify her use of clichés? How?

9. Acceptance is set in the fictional suburb of Verona, a name with a literary history: Romeo and Juliet is set in Verona, Italy. Serious writers typically have a reason for making such links. Why do you think Coll might have called her suburb Verona? Does this lead you to expect a tragedy? If so, is this misleading given that the novel is a comedy? Or does the novel also involve a tragedy?

10. Some people say that “real life isn’t like college – it’s like high school” (an idea that Meryl Streep used in a speech at Smith). How, if at all, does this apply to Acceptance?


11. Acceptance is similar in its title, structure and themes to Nancy Lieberman’s Admissions (Warner, 2005), a novel about the race to get into elite New York private high schools. If you’ve read Admissions, how would you compare the books?

12. Acceptance also has similarities to Tom Perrotta’s Election (Berkley, 1998), a comic novel about a New Jersey high school election made into a movie with Reese Withersoon. Both books deal with teenage ambition in suburbia. If you’ve read Election, how would you compare the books? What conclusions might someone who knew nothing about American teenagers (or suburbs) draw from the novels?

13. Coll tells us on the dust jacket that she has a child in college but doesn’t say where. What effect would it have had on your view of the novel if you knew that Coll had a child at Harvard or another school in the book? What effect would it have had if you knew that she had child who had been rejected by Harvard?

14. How do you think the Harvard admissions office and others with strong ties to the university would react to this novel?

A review of Acceptance appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews
on May 13, 2007, and is archived with the May posts and in the “Novels” category.

You may also want to read:

Admissions. By Nancy Lieberman. Warner, 365 pp., $13.95, paper. Published: September 2005 (paperback edition). Students at Manhattan “feeder” schools (for grades kindergarten through eight) struggle for spots at top private schools in this light social comedy. Admissions has parallels to Acceptance that your group may want to explore. For example, the first sentence of Lieberman’s book calls the admissions race a “blood sport.” Acceptance uses the same phrase to describe the competition for spots at elite colleges. [Page 47] Coll has also used a format similar to Lieberman’s in following several students through the application process. Which author uses this technique more effectively? Why?

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of The Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books that is not influenced by marketing concerns. If this guide helped you, please consider linking to this site or telling others about it. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 27, 2006

The New Year’s Resolutions of Kate Reddy, Working Mother

Allison Pearson satirizes sexual double standards at work and at home

I Don’t Know How She Does It: The Life of Kate Reddy, Working Mother. By Allison Pearson. Anchor, 338 pp., $13.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Working mothers! Can you identify with any of the following New Year’s resolutions?

“Adjust work-life balance for happier, healthier existence … Spend more time with your children … Don’t take [husband] for granted … Attempt to be size 10 … Call friends, hope they remember you.”

These are the resolutions of Kate Reddy, the high-octane fund manager and heroine of Allison Pearson’s merciless send-up of sexual double standards, I Don’t Know How She Does It. Kate believes she was “educated for something better than the gentle warming of Barbie pasta.” But her firm’s diversity initiatives are sham, her young children “have not grasped the principle of Quality Time,” and when her nanny calls in sick, the only available temp is a “close relative of Slobodan Milosevic.” Kate’s husband means well, but his good intentions are destined to count for only so much “until they programmed a man to notice you were out of toilet paper.”

One of the great virtues of this novel is that Pearson understands – and lampoons – the cultural forces that hold women back, such as diversity programs designed to more protect firms from lawsuits than to end discrimination. She never suggests that Kate would have fewer problems if she had a different husband or children or had spent years in therapy. But she hedges her bets with an over-the-top subplot about Kate’s father that that shows that not only does her heroine work with cretins – her father was pretty awful, too. Pearson tries to connect the two ideas by suggesting that women who succeed in finance tend to be “Daddy’s girls.” This may be true, but she tells us this instead of showing it convincingly, and at times causes the novel to cross the line from satire into farce. And when the inevitable marital crisis erupts, Kate’s husband takes action too cruel for a man who cast as saintly until them.

Even so, nearly every page of the novel has a sparkling or trenchant observation that helps to make it the best send-up of sexism at work of the new millennium. Every reader may have his or her own favorite line. Here’s one that fits a holiday week: “Like any other family, the Shattocks have their Christmas traditions. One tradition is that I buy all the presents for my side of the family and I buy all the presidents for our children and our two godchildren and I buy Richard’s presents and presents for Richard’s parents and his brother Peter and Peter’s wife Cheryl and their three kinds and Richard’s Uncle Alf … If Richard remembers, and depending on late opening hours, he buys a present for me.”

Best line: Here’s one that involves Kate Reddy’s 18-month-old son: “Ben has discovered his penis. Lying on the changing table, he wears the rapt, triumphant expression of a being who has just found the on-off switch for the solar system.”

Worst line: “My dad has always confused sentimentality with intimacy.” This is telling, not showing. And that “intimacy” is one of Pearson’s rare descents into psychobabble.

Recommended if … you have incipient carpal tunnel syndrome from all the packages you wrapped while your husband was watching The Game.

Editors: Jordan Pavlin at Knopf, Alison Samuel at Chatto, and Caroline Michel at Vintage.

Published: October 2002 (Knopf hardcover edition). September 2003 (first Anchor Books edition).

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 30, 2006

Before Bridget Jones, There Was Gail Parent’s Sheila Levine

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:57 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

A dark satire of pre-Sex and the City mating rituals in New York that still towers over most books in its class

Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York. Overlook, 223 pp., $13.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Long before Bridget Jones stepped on a scale, Sheila Levine embodied a certain kind of single woman – smart, funny, overweight, and desperate to get married. A generation of women embraced her as a spiritual sister when she appeared in Gail Parent’s 1972 bestseller, Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York, and took her story as an antidote to the terminal perkiness of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. So it was good news when, a couple of years ago, Overlook Press reprinted this blistering satire of mating rituals in pre-Sex and the City New York.

Like Bridget Jones, Sheila Levine is smart enough to see the absurdity of the games she plays with men but not smart enough to transcend them, which lends a comic poignancy to her husband-hunting. But her story is darker and more complex than Bridget’s. It begins with Sheila contemplating suicide because a New York shopkeeper had claimed falsely that his milkshakes had only 77 calories, an incident based on a real-life event. The rest of the story turns on whether she will kill herself, and it’s about as a bleak a premise as a novel can have. In some ways, this book has more in common Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play, ’night, Mother, than with Bridget Jones’s Diary.

But Parent keeps the darkness from becoming oppressive with a fast-paced plot and well-observed details of the age when a Saturday-night party meant women in sheaths and pearls, men in black horn rims, and “Peter, Paul and Mary on the hi-fi.” And more than three decades after its publication, it still towers over most books in its class, partly because Parent doesn’t ridicule her heroine for her focus on her weight and marriage. Instead she places the blame for those obsessions where they belong – on a culture that still sends women the message that all their problems could be solved by a Glamour makeover.


Worst line. Parent, a screenwriter, rarely misses the mark. But the ethnic humor in this book reflects the sensibilities of its era. For example, when her roommate doesn’t return one night during a vacation in Rome, Sheila thinks: “Linda was obviously being held by the Mafia, who wanted her to dead an Italian-Jewish-American whorehouse.”

Recommended if … you like dark comedy or wonder how people had sex when women wore panty girdles instead of thongs.

Published: 1972 (first edition), 2004 (Overlook reprint). The first edition, still available in many libraries and elsewhere, has a cover by the legendary graphic designer Milton Glazer, more famous for his snake-headed psychedelic Bob Dylan poster. The novel was also made into a 1975 movie.

Posted by Janice Harayda

(c) 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


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