Lisa Zeidner writes smart, funny, irreverent but good-hearted novels about (mostly) nice people in the urban and suburban Northeast. Her characters are trying to keep their lives centered under circumstances over which they often have little or no control, circumstances that can leave them flailing about as matters proceed in ways totally unrelated to what they expect or want. “Love Bomb” is the fifth of these, the story of a wedding gone excruciatingly awry in which Zeidner affords herself the opportunity to toss well-aimed zingers this way and that while treating her characters with understanding, kindness and affection.
It occurs to me that one of the reasons I like Zeidner’s work so much is that, while it is very much her own, it occupies territory quite similar to that of Laurie Colwin, who wrote, uh, smart, funny, irreverent but good-hearted novels about (mostly) nice people in the urban Northeast. Colwin didn’t much care for the suburbs. Like Zeidner, Colwin knew Philadelphia and Manhattan well, and the upper-middle-class Jewish communities thereof, and had a sympathetic but unsparing eye for the people who entered the pages of her books. Zeidner has a wacky side that Colwin didn’t, but I find it every bit as appealing as Colwin’s wry side.
The story takes place in Haddonfield, in southwestern New Jersey, a pristinely manicured small town that is almost entirely white and mostly quite well-to-do, only a few miles from Camden, which is exactly the opposite in almost every respect: predominantly black, desperately poor, anything except well-manicured. Zeidner teaches at the Camden branch of Rutgers, New Jersey’s state university, so presumably knows the territory well, but “Love Bomb” isn’t an exercise in sociology. It’s a comic novel about two nice young people who fall in love while doing pro bono work in Africa for Doctors Without Borders and come back to the States to get married, not in a church but in the back yard of the bride’s mother, who is all in favor of the marriage but totally opposed to the wedding:
“If they were a tribe in unforgiving terrain, if life were hard and short, there would be an excuse for people to festoon their hair with feathers and machete the suckling pig. People in love? Let’s eat! But here? It was silly. Why sanctify their love with a ceremony? Especially a ceremony performed not in a church but in a suburban backyard, by a friend who made a point of alerting everyone that he bought his ministry license on the Internet.”
If “weddings were pointless,” Helen Burns thinks, “ironic weddings were even more excruciatingly so.” Yet here she is playing hostess to a few dozen people who’ve been dragged out of the back yard and into the great room of her house because of the threat of bad weather. The bride is Helen’s daughter, Tess, and the groom is Gabriel Billips, the son of an African American father and a white mother, “intelligent, open, easygoing people, journalists from Atlanta.” Helen is a psychotherapist “with a mere Ph.D.,” but her ex-husband “and a handful of the wedding guests were psychiatrists who could call in a script for Thorazine or process a committal right on the spot.” If that makes you think that Zeidner aims to have some fun at the expense of psychiatrists, you’re right:
“An old psychiatry joke: if a new patient walks in for treatment with a peg leg, an eye patch, and a parrot on his shoulder, you should ask him, ‘What seems to be the problem?’ In school they preach humility, open-mindedness. They try to teach you not to rush to judgment. Helen knew it was not a lesson that any of the psychiatrists seemed to have learned, but then, they had been to medical school, a recipe for allowing those who survived it to be smug.”
There are about half a dozen of them in attendance: “Though they were of varying heights and weights, they all looked like Bernie Madoff, Jewish and prosperously rumpled.” So there they are in the great room, waiting for the ceremony to begin, when suddenly the party is crashed by a woman wrapped in an old-fashioned wedding gown, wearing “what looked like an old World War II gas mask, bulky as a scuba diver’s,” over which “she wore wraparound mirrored sunglasses.” On her feet are “steel-reinforced-toe work boots identical to those of any road construction crew or cable installation dude, except that the boots had been spray-painted white over stencils, so they actually looked like white-and-cream lace.” A strange black box with a flashing button is attached to one of her arms, and she is carrying what appears to be a sawed-off shotgun.
First she confiscates all the cellphones, then she rounds up the women’s purses. She shuts everyone in the room and disappears, leaving all of them in a state of disbelief and alarm. The shrinks immediately start psychoanalyzing her, declaring her to be schizophrenic or otherwise mentally imbalanced. One of them suggests that she might have been love-bombed, defined by the best man as “what cults do to convert people. To make ’em drink the Kool-Aid.” Whatever the case, the room is crowded and soon enough turns hot. People are nervous and need to go to the bathroom. The terrorist — that’s what they decide she is — pops in from time to time to make threatening sounds or gestures. Helen decides that “this woman wanted to be caught” but is puzzled by the weird way in which she is going about it.
Bit by bit, clues emerge that indicate a troubled romantic relationship in the woman’s past and thus lead to further suspicions about her motives and intentions: “Their hostage taker was a woman with a background in film, and the man who ditched her was not in the room at all. If he’d been in the room, the [woman] would have called him out by now. Helen also knew, suddenly and forcefully, that this had nothing to do with any of them.” But the situation remains unresolved until the woman’s identity is revealed, her story explained, and matters come to a head.
The book begins with a number of sharp zingers. To be sure, psychiatrists are inviting targets, but that doesn’t make the zingers any less amusing. Zeidner has done her research carefully and writes with authority, not merely about shrinks but also about Doctors Without Borders, explosive devices, SWAT teams and all the contemporary phenomena that go into the making of “Love Bomb.” It’s very much a novel of the moment (as the reference to Bernie Madoff makes abundantly clear), but as it happens the moment is a pretty crazy one and Zeidner does a nice job of showing how people cope with the challenges it presents. Helen Burns is a terrific character — “She was not just a woman with a mere Ph.D., but a small, plain, quiet, soft-spoken, non-Jewish woman — so many strikes against her it’s a miracle she was permitted to practice” — and so is the groom’s grandfather, a “retired military colonel” who “was reputed to be strict, harsh, unforgiving, a man who wore full regalia and polished shoes to summer barbecues.”
Summer is over, which is too bad because “Love Bomb” is a perfect summer novel. So save it for next year: The craziness about which Zeidner writes isn’t going away anytime soon.
By Lisa Zeidner
Sarah Crichton/Farrar Straus Giroux.
260 pp. $26