Who says artful writing and well-developed characters are essential to a good story? Neither is anywhere in evidence between the hot-pink covers of Olivia Goldsmith's latest, Dumping Billy (Warner, $24), but there I was at 2 in the morning, mainlining the last hundred pages.
Career girl Kate Jameson has landed a dream job as a psychologist at a fancy private school in Manhattan. Intellectually and sartorially, she's left her Brooklyn childhood pals in the dust, but now they're all pairing off and breeding, while Kate is still casting about for Mr. Right. Her current beau is a humorless and self-involved anthropologist, the dull safe guy who is usually the foil for the true Prince Charming waiting in the wings. Enter Billy Nolan. A Brooklyn bar owner whose movie-star looks make women go weak-kneed, Billy has dated and dumped just about everyone Kate knows from the old neighborhood. What's more, as soon as he bids her adieu, each girl meets the guy of her dreams and gets hitched. The fun starts when Kate's posse conspires to use Billy to secure a marriage proposal for Kate's best friend. But wait! Could there be more to this dreamboat than meets the eye?
Cliches abound, characters rarely stray from their sitcom roles, and nuance is strictly verboten. But Goldsmith, who wrote the best-selling The First Wives Club -- and who died of complications from plastic surgery last January -- knew a thing or two about comic timing and can be counted on for a memorable line. When Kate first spots Billy in the street, she turns to appraise him from behind: "She always had a weakness in that area, and this guy was . . . well, his buns must have come from the very best bakery." Yes, this is that kind of book -- a romantic comedy that unabashedly embraces all the familiar formulas and chugs right along toward the happy ending, utterly improbable though it may be. Which way to the beach?
The Wall of Sleep
It's generally not a very good sign when a book starts with a car accident that lands one of the main characters in a coma, but Elizabeth McGregor's gracefully written and affecting novel A Road Through the Mountains (Bantam, $24) manages the drama with restraint and pragmatism -- as if to say, these things do happen, and when they do, let's see what comes next.
The story concerns an impulsive and independent-minded painter named Anna Russell, who had a passionate affair with a young British botanist while studying at Oxford, got pregnant, panicked and ran for the hills. She never told the father, and he has never gotten over her. The novel is set 11 years later, when Anna is living in Boston as a single mother, struggling to raise her daughter, who has been diagnosed with a form of autism known as Asperger's syndrome. Anna has been able to manage financially thanks to her relationship with a rich gallery owner named James Garrett, whose enigmatic past and mysterious intentions -- "You are my own Madonna," he tells her in a moment of passion -- send an icy undercurrent through the book. The car accident throws everything into flux. When David Mortimer, the botanist, receives an out-of-the-blue phone call from Anna's mother, begging him to come to Boston to see Anna and the daughter he never knew he had, he's not sure he can bring himself to make the trip.
McGregor, whose previous novel was The Ice Child, has a real gift for character, and the people here come naturally and vividly to life. (Perhaps the one exception is James, who seems suspiciously like a plot device.) The ending may seem a tad abrupt and tidy, but these are small marks against a remarkably accomplished and poignant book. Not least of its charms are the lovely descriptive passages about flowers (McGregor did research at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston) and the evocative Chinese landscapes that connect Anna to David and are her bridge back into the world.
South to an Old Melodrama
"Tee Wee stood on her front porch, arms folded over her huge breasts, bare feet wide apart. She weighed more than two hundred pounds, and in her Sunday navy blue dress with red stripes, over which she wore a small white apron, she resembled a large mailbox." This kind of exuberant description is one of the delights of Bev Marshall's second novel, Right as Rain (Ballantine, $23.95), a three-family saga set in rural Mississippi during the 1950s and '60s. The indomitable black matriarchs Tee Wee and Icey -- cook and housekeeper, respectively -- live with their men and their brood of children on Parsons' Place. Tee Wee has seniority on the farm, and she trots out her superior attitude when the new hired help arrives. But almost despite themselves, the women become fast friends, and the comical jockeying for stature that goes on between them is an endearing -- and skillfully rendered -- aspect of their relationship.
The Parsons, the white family who own the farm, are kind employers, and strong ties develop between the two Parsons children and Tee Wee and her kids. The steamy adolescent affair that consumes Tee Wee's daughter Crow and the Parsons boy is an interesting inversion of the expected power roles, and also a touching love story that ultimately collapses under the weight of a little too much melodrama. But all in all, Marshall does a convincing job of balancing two decades' worth of tragedy and good fortune, change and stasis, in plotting out these lives. The only part of the book that feels forced is a To Kill a Mockingbird-type trial that too deliberately thrusts the characters into the racial strife of the era.
Rachel Cline's amiable first novel, What to Keep (Random House $23.95), about "how easy it is to screw things up with the people you love" surveys the lingering effects of a little benign parental neglect by following aspiring-actress-turned-playwright Denny Roman through three stages of her life. We first meet Denny as a 12-year-old growing up in Columbus, Ohio, the only child of divorced neurologists who are too flaky and distracted to make the family arrangement work. Maureen, a one-person all-purpose life-management agency, provides a modicum of stability by seeing to the everyday essentials -- grocery shopping, hair appointments, school plays -- that busy doctors simply don't have time for. But even with Maureen's around-the-clock supervision, Denny's mother is pretty hopeless as a parent, once sending her daughter to school with a sealed can of tuna fish and some saltines for lunch. "My parents are brain surgeons," Denny snaps at an awestruck classmate. "They don't have time to cut up carrot sticks."
When the book lurches forward 14 years, Denny is based in Hollywood, trying to make it as an actress. Her mother has since remarried and is selling the house, and Denny faces the onerous task of deciding what to keep of her childhood possessions. A hard-to-believe meeting with Robert Altman is not the big break she hopes for, but eventually Denny finds her footing as a playwright. The book's final section is set 10 years later in New York, and we learn that the other characters have also experienced major life changes. Thematically, things come full circle when Maureen's 12-year-old son shows up at Denny's door, forcing her to consider whether she's any better equipped than her parents were to assume responsibility for a child.
For all the capable writing and thoughtful characterization, What to Keep feels distant and disjointed. The book's tripartite structure, presumably intended to give the story a grander scope, seems arbitrary. Cline is generous and discerning when it comes to her characters, but the interruption of the narrative at crucial moments in their lives only dilutes our sense of who they are and how they've evolved. Denny at 36 is not palpably different from Denny at 26, and neither feels related in any essential way to the plucky adolescent in Part One.
Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster, $23), a snappily titled book by first-time author Rochelle Jewel Shapiro, chronicles the professional and domestic misadventures of a phone psychic from Long Island. It's a promising and imaginative premise, but there aren't many surprises around the bend.
Blessed with a gift inherited from her Russian bubbe, Miriam Kaminsky feels misunderstood and underappreciated. Life is a daily struggle to find the right balance between honoring her unusual powers and not interfering in her family's personal affairs. Miriam's husband -- a good-hearted but ineffectual sort -- is generally supportive, as long as she doesn't try to apply her intuitions to his pharmacy business. But their teenage daughter -- who, alas, was not born with "the caul, the membrane of afterbirth covering her head that . . . was a sign of another psychic coming into the world" -- is mortified by her mother and avoids her like the plague. We were all unjustifiably awful to our mothers at 17, but when Miriam makes her daughter drink a witches' brew of hot apple cider vinegar with crushed garlic to combat the flu, one can't help but feel that the woman deserves everything that's coming to her. The tension mounts when Miriam is presented with an opportunity to cure her family's longstanding financial woes -- but at the expense of her psychic integrity and everything that Bubbie taught her. Will she do it? Will the reader care?
Miriam's psychic phone consultations are diverting, and we're treated to some loopy misunderstandings along the way. Before long, however, the comic potential is tapped, and then we're just going through the motions. The characters -- bland and predictable -- aren't much help. Still, Shapiro is a lively writer, and this is a likable, if not quite captivating, book. *
Julia Livshin is a staff editor at the Atlantic Monthly.