Book review: Sarah Pekkanen’s ‘Skipping a Beat’

March 8, 2011

The heroine of Sarah Pekkanen’s second novel, “Skipping a Beat,” is a 30-something party planner who lives in a multimillion-dollar mansion in Northern Virginia. When we first meet Julia Dunhill, she is finalizing the details for a fundraising event. Clad in three-inch Stuart Weitzman heels while balancing a tray of expensive cupcakes, she cuts a sharp figure. But all that is about to change: Her husband, Michael, is in cardiac arrest at his downtown office. Michael survives, but Pekkanen, who lives in Chevy Chase, suggests from the outset that his heart attack will not be the book’s only trag­edy.

For Julia, Michael’s endurance is itself a kind of ca­lam­ity. He emerges from near-death with a new outlook: No longer enamored of material success, he wants to sell his company and give millions to charity. Aghast at the prospect of losing her luxurious lifestyle, Julia contemplates divorce. She is not as shallow as that sounds; she is a well-drawn and emotionally complex character whose foibles and fears will resonate with readers beyond her upscale Zip code.

Weaving past and present, Pekkanen traces Julia and Michael’s relationship to its beginnings in an impoverished West Virginia town. Back then the couple were simply Julie and Mike. Julie’s father was a compulsive gambler; Mike’s mother left his family when he was 12. Mike was determined to “have enough money to do whatever I want.” Julie sensed that Mike would make her “safe, in every possible way.” After high school, Mike and Julie packed their belongings in Hefty bags and headed for Washington in a battered car. They worked their way through college — Mike at Georgetown and Julie at the University of Maryland — while living in a tiny, roach-infested apartment in Tenleytown.

As they crept up the economic ladder, they became Michael and Julia. Michael launched a new product, a healthy, low-sugar water called DrinkUp. (For advice on the nuts and bolts of beverage entre­pre­neur­ship, Pekkanen, a former journalist, turned to Honest Tea co-founder Seth Goldman .) Soon, Oprah was pictured with a bottle of DrinkUp, and Michael’s company was worth millions. Julia had more than she’d ever imagined, but her husband’s quest for money was insatiable.

In this intelligent and entertaining novel, Pekkanen shows how quickly — in the skip of a heartbeat — everything can change. The questions her heroine faces about love, money and fate may be timeworn, but Pekkanen inserts enough humor and psychological insight to elevate the plot beyond the expected. She also offers a delightful slice of life inside the Beltway.

bookworld@washpost.com

Robertson is a producer of “The Diane Rehm Show.”

SKIPPING A BEAT

By Sarah Pekkanen

Washington Square. 327 pp. Paperback, $15

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