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Men at Wonk

By Jennifer Howard,
a contributing editor of Book World.
Wednesday, September 1, 2004; Page C03


By Kristin Gore

Miramax. 387 pp. $23.95

'Sammy's Hill' by Kristin Gore. (Book Cover)

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On the evidence presented by "Sammy's Hill," her first novel, Kristin Gore seems like a really nice person. Like her father -- yes, that's Gore as in Al -- she cares about the 44 million Americans who live without such trifling luxuries as health insurance. She believes that public service can be just that -- something undertaken for the good of one's constituents rather than for ego gratification or the financial gain of one's boardroom cronies. She even holds out hope that there's a place in the White House for -- gasp! -- idealism.

If political activism is her strong suit, however, writing fiction is not. There's room in this world, barely, for a chick-lit romp with a Capitol Hill twist. But like Samantha Joyce, the earnest young Hill staffer who's the Sammy of the title, Gore tries way too hard to be cute while getting out the vote.

At the ripe old age of 26, Sammy has landed a plum if stressful job as health care policy adviser to RG -- Robert Gary, the junior senator from her home state of Ohio. In college, she explains, "I devoted myself to studying the complexity and flaws of the country's health care system." (Don't you just love her to death already?) She goes on to explain, in what proves to be customary excess, that "while slaving away on my thesis, I had landed interviews with Ohio's nineteen members of the House of Representative and both senators. Senator Robert Gary had impressed me as head and shoulders above the rest with his thorough grasp of health care issues and his long-term vision. As he'd answered my questions and talked about his plans for reform, I'd felt a mixture of awe and inspiration."

It's hard to hate Sammy, despite her penchant for exposition. And Gore wants to make extra-double-sure you like her by piling on quirk after charming quirk: Sammy's fatalistic attachment to Shackleton, a Japanese fighting fish perpetually at death's door; her morbidly extensive knowledge of rare and fatal maladies, any of which might carry her off any minute; her devotion to telemarketers, whom she'll call to ask for advice about her love life; a klutziness that would make a heroine of screwball comedies green with envy; and her devotion to celebrating obscure anniversaries, such as "the fourteenth anniversary of the publication of Deepak Chopra's first book, and the subsequent birth of his self-help empire."

All right, that's a little bit funny. Less funny is Sammy's liaison with Aaron Driver, the hard-charging speechwriter for the powerful and morally bankrupt Sen. John Bramen, "a jerk by most accounts, but an extremely successful one." The machinations of politics make for strange bedfellows: RG needs Bramen to help him get a health care reform bill through Congress, so Sammy spends more time than she wants to with the evil Bramen crew to further RG's worthy causes. At least Aaron's cuter than his boss. But, as you can guess from the get-go (and from the way he always refers to her as "babe" -- never a good sign), he's not Mr. Right for our Ms. Do-Right. That honor goes to . . . well, I won't spoil it. Let's just say there are a few candidates in the race for Sammy's heart and other parts, from a Carvillean political strategist to a hottie Washington Post reporter with Clark Kent appeal. (Is there any other kind of Post reporter?) Lest you think the author's sucking up to the local rag, note this comment made by said hottie reporter about his editors: "I suppose I had this idealistic notion that I'd be working for people whose only agenda was to break the truths of the world to their readers. I haven't found that to be the case. I know I was naive. But the agendas get me down."

No comment, except to say that Post editors aren't the only people with agendas in this book, which hands out liberal bromides as if they were campaign buttons. And I say this as a liberal who agrees with just about every plank in RG's platform, from health care reform on down. My liberal heart was also pained by the scene in which the lone female candidate for the presidential nomination of RG's party (the Democrats, we assume, although Gore never mentions either political party directly), has a meltdown (very public, very bad for the career) in which she denounces her partner in adultery; what's this aggressively unfeminist cliche -- the woman with ambition who proves to be a screaming, unbalanced harpy -- doing in a novel by Al Gore's daughter?

It would be far too easy to be mean to "Sammy's Hill," which, like D.C. politics, is full of inane, platitudinous and just plain ugly moments. "We headed downtown to the party and met Jane at the door. Inside, flashbulbs lit up the rooms filled with glamorous and important people." "As I closed my eyes and let my brain swirl with the excitement and tequila and kissing of the day, I wished for it all to continue just like these first hours of new, potential-pregnant adventure." "Everything attained a faster, more hectic clip and the weeks blurred by in the blink of an overscheduled eye." "Though the snow had finally stopped falling, the city lay paralyzed in its copious clutches." Overscheduled eyes? Copious clutches? Even a joint House-Senate committee could come up with language less tortured than this.

With Harvard Lampoon and "Saturday Night Live" writing credits, Kristin Gore ought to be able to do better. On second thought, maybe she shouldn't. A distinguished pedigree, whether it's familial or Ivy League, may help one get into print or into office, but it doesn't guarantee one will do much with the opportunity. If Kristin Gore runs for office, I'll vote for her, but I won't read her next book if there is one.

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