One-Minute Book Reviews

November 27, 2009

Not Written in Lipstick – Sarah Dunn’s Novel ‘Secrets to Happiness’

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:45 am
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A search-and-rescue mission for single New Yorkers and their dogs

Secrets to Happiness: A Novel. By Sarah Dunn. Little, Brown, 277 pp., $23.99.

By Janice Harayda

Sarah Dunn is that rarity among comic novelists — a moralist in the best sense of the word. She doesn’t preach or lecture. But her heroines have a solid moral core left over from the strict Christian upbringing they have rejected. They struggle to do the right thing even as friends are cheating on their partners or trolling for casual sex on LukesPlace, a site similar to Craigslist in Secrets to Happiness. If Dunn’s heroines fall for faithless men, it isn’t because these women are vapid or silly – it’s because they are confused. They don’t know how to reconcile their early lessons with those of the age of Sex and the City, when their peers deal with moral questions by handing them off to psychiatrists or blocking them out with drugs from a pharmacy in St. Kitts.

“It never ceased to amaze Holly, how therapists managed to spin things,” Dunn writes of her main character. After years in Manhattan, Holly suspected that psychotherapy aimed to make it possible for people “to do whatever they wanted to do, with whomever they wanted to do it, when and where and however they felt like it, while reaping no negative emotional consequences whatsoever.”

That passage alone might lift Secrets to Happiness above most novels about single New Yorkers, in which few plot devices are more clichéd than an emotionally gimpy heroine’s visit to a therapist whose banalities help her find love. But the book has much more going for it than that. This is a novel about the related questions: What is the cost of being emotionally abandoned? And when do you give up the fantasy that you can rescue a relationship?

Holly Frick thinks she still loves a husband who has left her when, in her mid-30s, she faces other swiftly arriving changes: She adopts a dog with brain cancer, becomes involved with a 22-year-old man, and learns that her married best friend is having an affair. She must also persuade her gay script-writing partner to do his share of the work for an afternoon TV show now that her masochistically titled novel, Hello, Mr. Heartache, is tanking at bookstores. Part of the suspense comes from whether Holly will stick with her canine and human companions or will abandon them as her husband has abandoned her.

Dunn doesn’t develop this plot quite as well as she did that of her first novel, The Big Love, which has no relation to the HBO series. Much of the charm of that book came from the quirky first-person narration of its heroine, a Philadelphia magazine writer. Dunn uses shifting third-person viewpoints in her new novel, and though she handles them well, the device leaves the book softer at its center. Holly is its emotional and moral anchor, and the omniscient narration dilutes her impact.

So the pleasure of reading Secrets to Happiness comes less from its plot than from Dunn’s sophisticated wit, social commentary, and sharp eye for how single people of both sexes rationalize their actions. The novel abounds with lines that are amusing or perceptive or both. One involves the its Craigslist-surrogate: “The thing Leonard liked about LukesPlace was that you didn’t have to be altogether on your game and yet you could still have sex with perfect strangers.” When a man asks Holly if she wrote “chick lit,” she responds, “I wrote the entire thing in lipstick, actually.” No one should confuse Secrets to Happiness with a book that might as well be sold at cosmetics counters.

Best line: “Betsy Silverstein was only half Jewish, but with Betsy, half was plenty.”

Worst line: “She pressed on like a trooper.” The word is “trouper.”

Recommended if … you’ve wonder, “Where are the novels about single women that aren’t mainly about shoes?” (though The Big Love offers a better introduction to Dunn’s work).

Published: March 2009

About the author: Dunn has written for Murphy Brown and other television shows. A post about The Big Love appeared on this site on Feb. 14, 2007.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 27, 2009

‘Nobody Calls Me Pecker Head and Lives’ — A New Jersey Critic Looks at ‘Finger Lickin’ Fifteen,’ Janet Evanovich’s Latest Novel About a Trenton-Based Bounty Hunter

Killers behead high-profile chef with a meat cleaver, and, yes, it’s supposed to be funny

Finger Lickin’ Fifteen. By Janet Evanovich. St. Martin’s, 308 pp., $27.95.

By Janice Harayda

Janet Evanovich is one of the writers whose books I most want to like. She and I went to rival New Jersey high schools at different times – you haven’t lived if you were born too late for a South River–New Brunswick Thanksgiving Day game at the old Rutgers Stadium! – and I share a few traits with her Trenton-based bounty hunter Stephanie Plum, including blue eyes, a Hungarian grandmother, and bad car karma. My first novel came from her publisher, a firm that in a perilous market has kept its integrity to a degree widely admired in the industry. And I love comic novels and look for opportunities to praise them on this site.

But Evanovich seems to have lost her focus since the publication of One for the Money, her first novel about Plum, in 1994. From the start, she has combined genres — romance, mystery, adventure, and comedy — in the series. In Finger Lickin’ Fifteen, the comedy devolves into farce, a form that relies on over-the-top elements such as improbable plotting and slapstick. Her humor is so broad, it undermines her attempt to tell a plausible story. And it clashes with the realism of other aspects the novel, such as Plum’s flirtations with the plainclothes cop Joe Morelli and with Carlos “Ranger” Manoso, who heads the Rangeman security firm for which she moonlights. At times the comedy is so silly or tasteless, Evanovich seems to be parodying herself.

The opening pages of Finger Lickin’ Fifteen describe how a pair of killers used a meat cleaver to behead a high-profile chef absurdly named Stanley Chipotle on a Trenton street: “There was a big gusher of blog when they whacked the head off,” a witness says. “It was like Old Faithful going off, only it was blood. And then the head rolled down the sidewalk … ”

Am I the only person who read this and thought of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter beheaded in Pakistan in 2002 after his kidnappers released a terrifying video of his captivity? And the only reader who isn’t ready to laugh — as this novel asks us to do — at the story of an effort to find the people who chopped off a man’s head with a cleaver?

A second plot – it gets so much space, you can’t call it a “subplot” — involves a series of break-ins at properties protected by the Rangeman security staff, and you keep expecting it to relate in the end to the murder of Stanley Chipotle. It doesn’t. The two plots seem to exist mainly to give Plum a chance to flirt throughout the story with Morelli and Ranger, and both storylines have unsatisfying resolutions. The prime mover of one plot escapes justice completely, and only his underlings are apprehended. The people behind the other aren’t mentioned by name for the first 300 pages, so if you read mysteries partly for the pleasure of sorting through clues and trying to guess the identity of the perpetrator, you’re out of luck.

Some people say that you don’t read Evanovich for her plots but for her humor, and that’s fair enough. But as her comedy has become more farcical, her humor has become cruder and more sophomoric. Finger Lickin’ Fifteen abounds with jokes about farts and other body functions or parts, including those described on its pages as “number two,” “cooter,” “pecker,” “wanger,” or “winkie.” “Nobody calls me pecker head and lives,” says a character unwisely named Peter Pecker. Is Evanovich courting 10-year-olds moving up from Harry Potter books?

Perhaps oddest of all given that Evanovich grew up in New Jersey, Finger Lickin’ Fifteen gives you no sense of what makes Trenton unique or a worthy setting for a mystery. The action might as well take place in Cleveland. As I write this review, the United States Attorney for New Jersey has just announced the arrest of dozens of people, including rabbis, mayors and and current or former state legislators. One defendant is said to have passed cash illegally in a box of Apple Jacks cereal stuffed with $97,000. Nobody is asking Evanovich to return to New Jersey from her current homes Florida and New Hampshire. But she has clearly lost touch with some of the wellsprings of material. Who needs to send a severed head rolling down a Trenton street when you can find so much drama in a box of Apple Jacks?

Best line: “… gravy so thick you could walk across a vat of it.”

Worst line: No. 1: “ ‘Nobody calls me pecker head and lives,’ Pecker said.” No. 2: “ ‘Yep,’ Grandma said. ‘He’s got a big one. All them Turleys is hung like horses. … I tell you, for a little guy, he had a real good-sized wanger.'” No. 3: “It was a record-breaking fart. On my best day, I couldn’t come near to farting like that.”

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Finger Lickin’ Fifteen appears in the post that directly preceded this one.

Published: June 2009

Listen to the beginning of Finger Lickin’ Fifteen.

Janice Harayda is a former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and wrote the comic novel The Accidental Bride (St. Martin’s, 1999).

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

June 4, 2008

‘Sex and the City,’ the Book That Started It All

Filed under: Movie Link,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:43 pm
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First, it was a collection of columns from a quirky weekly printed on salmon-colored paper

Sex and the City is a book that, like so many of its male characters, has baggage. But the baggage has changed in the 12 years since the publication of this collection of Candace Bushnell’s columns for the New York Observer, a quirky weekly printed on salmon-colored paper.

In the beginning many people treated Sex and the City less as a book than a parlor game: Who were the restless urban bedmates whose identities Bushnell had disguised? By the time the gossip columnists had lost interest in that question — or learned the answers — the book had picked up new baggage: the expectations created by the HBO Series www.hbo.com/city/. How does the original stand up to the adventures of Sarah Jessica Parker and friends?

Both have merits, but the HBO series has the edge, at least in its first seasons, before the show became a near-parody of itself (to say nothing of the movie, which I haven’t seen). In Sex and the City Bushnell wrote with style and authority about single female New Yorkers who had rejected the sexual mores of yore but hadn’t found a satisfying — or, in some cases, even humane — replacement for them. Her women were intelligent but shallow and independent but yearning for, if not love, at least a dependable piece of arm candy, and many of her men were worse. These New Yorkers were clearly not to everyone’s tastes — the overall tone of the book was chilly — but they were far more interesting than the flat characters in Bushnell’s subsequent novels www.candacebushnell.com.

Even so, the book gave some critics pause for another reason, too: You couldn’t tell how much of it was true. Its columns had appeared in a respected weekly, but Bushnell drew on techniques used by novelists. In hindsight, she looks like an ancestor of the new memoirists who believe that only emotional truths matter. But her book was still a revelation to many of us who were living in places like Cleveland when it came out: Who knew what was going on in Manhattan and the Hamptons?

From first episode of the HBO series, Sarah Jessica Parker gave Sex and the City some of the warmth that the book lacked. The writers also kicked up the humor up several notches, making the best episodes were funnier. And the series raised no questions of truth-in-publishing: It was clearly fiction.

This doesn’t mean that book has outlived its appeal. Sex and the City gives a unique account of a certain New York subculture in the 1990s. It may especially appeal to people found the HBO version too upbeat, or unrealistically sanguine about single women’s sexual prospects in their 30s and beyond. Writing in the Washington Post in 1996, Jonathan Yardley noted that every city has singles bars and their lonely patrons: “But Manhattan does tend to bring out the worst in certain people, and Sex and the City leaves no doubt that these days the worst can be very bad indeed.”

Read some of the the original “Sex and the City” columns in the Observer www.observer.com/2007/sex-and-city.

Watch the Sex and the City movie trailer here www.sexandthecitymovie.com.

Visit the site for the publisher of Sex and the City www.hachettebookgroupusa.com/books_9780446673549.htm for information on some of the editions of the book, including an audio edition read by Cynthia Nixon.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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