Some Wrinkles in Time
If you've never been to a bagels-and-Botox party, or had a session with a Tantric sex therapist ("Just pretend you're volleying a Ping-Pong ball back and forth between each other's groins"), listen up, ladies, because Janice Kaplan and Lynn Schnurnberger are here to bring you up to speed. Their spirited new book, The Botox Diaries (Ballantine, $23.95), is about two forty-something suburban New York moms -- one married, one divorced -- who aren't quite ready to throw in the towel on romance and sexy sandals.
Jess, the down-to-earth single mom, hasn't had much of a love life since she and her two-timing French hubby parted ways. Her best friend, Lucy, a glamorous TV producer, has set her up on some ridiculous dates, but recently Lucy has been in full-blown midlife crisis ("despite her fabulous job, three wonderful children, and oh, yes, the Mercedes and the six-bedroom house") and busy looking after her own romantic interests. Jess can't believe that Lucy would jeopardize her perfect marriage to have an affair with a chubby, marginally famous game show host, but what can you do? Love makes you stupid and eager to plunk down $600 on lingerie. Meanwhile, Jess's long-lost ex, Jacques, re-emerges, acting contrite and charming and as if he wants to get back together. Jess doesn't mind being romanced, but she's also thinking of her fatherless adolescent daughter, who may have been trying to tell her something when she entered Jess in a contest in Cosmo to win a date with a surfer named Boulder.
A breast-enlargement consultation and a pair of Tiffany's diamond earrings later, the girls learn their lessons (once a perfidious Frenchman, always a perfidious Frenchman!) -- just in time for their fairy-tale endings. The moral? "One good kiss from the right guy still makes you more radiant than a year of dermabrasion." Fast-paced and with a zinger on every page, The Botox Diaries is good summer fun.
Portrait of a Marriage
With a title like The Bad Boy's Wife (St. Martin's, $23.95), you might expect a frothy romance. But Karen Shepard's new novel is much better than that. Spanning 20 years, it skillfully reconstructs the complicated emotional terrain of a marriage gone sour.
They were an unlikely match -- Hannah, a sensible girl from a proper Southern family, and Cole, a handsome fly-by-night horse trainer -- but they were wild about each other ("Like getting hit by lightning without getting hurt") and hoped that would be enough. Over the years, money problems and infidelities large and small crept in, and the pair weathered a particularly dicey spell when Hannah considered leaving Cole for her reliable, adoring hometown sweetheart. Instead, she got pregnant ("there'd been a general hush about her, as if she was in a giant soap bubble"), and they had Mattie, who is 10 when the book opens and miserably caught between her parents in an unpleasant custody battle. What finally did the marriage in was a Southern beauty named Georgia, whose aristocratic, serpentine charms smote both Hannah and Cole.
Shepard, whose previous novel was An Empire of Women, uses shifting points of view to tell the story -- a tough thing to pull off, but it's effective here because the characters have such distinctive voices and sensibilities. The events unfold in reverse chronological order, starting with a car accident that leaves Georgia in a coma. This sets the stage for some unlovely behavior on Hannah's part, which in turn provides the impetus for the legal squabbling. A slightly contrived framework perhaps, but no matter because the meat of the book -- Hannah and Cole's maddening and moving relationship, which emerges more fully with every chapter -- is so satisfying. And the real treat is the writing: clean, no-frills and bulls-eye accurate.
Keeping Them Down on the Farm
Set in the Italian-American enclave of Roseto, Pa., in the 1920s, Adriana Trigiani's full-bodied and elegantly written new novel, The Queen of the Big Time (Random House, $24.95), tells the story of Nella Castelluca, an ambitious farm girl chasing the American dream. A whiz at school, 14-year-old Nella has a chance to continue her education and see something beyond the family farm. But when her father is injured in a quarry accident, she must put her goal of becoming a teacher on hold and go to work in a blouse factory. Proving herself to be no slouch with a steam press, the industrious Nella is made a forelady at the age of 16.
Not to worry -- what follows is not all immigrant hardships and missed opportunities. Trigiani, who carved out her place as a chronicler of big feelings in small-town lives with her best-selling Big Stone Gap trilogy, builds this book around an old-fashioned love story. Nella falls for Renato, a local boy with a college education and high aspirations. A Don Juan and a lost soul, he breaks her heart. She's sure she'll never get over her first true love, but Franco, a warm-hearted, handsome machinist at the factory, slowly wears away her resistance. Nella and Franco's courtship and marriage open Part II of the book, which then gallops through 40 years of birth, death and other big changes. The author keeps the romantic tension at a low simmer by bringing back Renato in a surprise reappearance. By the end Nella is the mother of two grown children, a successful entrepreneur and an important figure in the community. But a 50th-birthday trip to her father's hometown -- the original Roseto Valfortore on Italy's Adriatic coast -- introduces her to a new feeling: self-doubt. Did she make the right choices in life?
Trigiani doesn't like to leave loose threads, and the second part of the book at times feels like a race to tie up any remaining possibilities. But the writing in Part I, which lingers on Nella's relationship with her sisters and the small details of farm life -- "There is no sweeter perfume on the farm than strong coffee brewing on the stove and Mama's buttery sponge cake, fresh out of the oven" -- is pure pleasure.
The Force of Weight and Mass
"For the first time in months she forgot about how fat she was. Weight seemed gigantically unimportant now, like losing a button or missing a bus." Meet Charlotte Clapp, the affable, self-denigrating, miserably alone, 250-pound heroine of Robin Schwarz's first novel, Night Swimming (Warner, $23.95), a female-empowerment joy ride.
Charlotte has just learned that her pathetic life in deadly dull Gorham, N.H., is about to come to an abrupt end. A routine physical turns up cancer, and Charlotte walks out of the doctor's office with one year to live. After a frenzied binge on Krispy Kremes and Cheez Doodles, she gets hold of herself and resolves to make something of the time she has left. Her plan? To rob the bank where she's worked for 15 years and hightail it to Hollywood, looking for love. She's not optimistic -- "Who on earth could love me? I'm fat, boring, and dying" -- but what does she have to lose?
Armed with a new identity -- Blossom McBeal -- she plunks down a cool million in cash for a pad in a fancy Hollywood complex with a pool and falls head-over-heels for Skip, the pool guy, who's almost better-looking "than Robert Redford in The Way We Were." Skip, it turns out, isn't your ordinary maintenance hunk; he's a disillusioned lawyer in search of his true calling. While Blossom is mooning over Skip, swimming laps in the pool after dark and working on her positive outlook, there's a manhunt underway. By the time Gorham's police chief finally tracks her down, Charlotte Clapp is a new woman -- with a svelte figure, a healthy attitude and love in her life. Sure, there's a bit of a legal tangle to work out, but a federal crime isn't going to keep Charlotte down, and the trip back to New Hampshire is a welcome respite from the overlong Hollywood section. Despite its grab-life-by-the-horns platitudes and sappy ending, this feel-good debut is a lively read.
Truth is stranger than fiction, an epigraph from Mark Twain cautions, as if this is fair warning for the eye-popping coincidences and romantic entanglement awaiting us in Jenny McPhee's second novel. No Ordinary Matter (Free Press, $23) is the story of two sisters trying to solve the mystery of their father's past.
Veronica and Lillian Moore are opposites in every imaginable way. Dark-haired Veronica, the nice sister who wears cheery sundresses and worries about her smoking habit, supports herself as a soap-opera writer but dreams of making musicals. Lillian, a stunning blonde, is a steely neurologist without a sentimental bone in her body: Her idea of having a baby is harvesting some genes from a patient with a superior phenotype, which she does. Lillian also has a maddening way of stripping down all human behavior to its basic physiological components. When Veronica expresses interest in the identity of the baby's father, an irritated Lillian invokes Richard Dawkins's theory of cultural genetics: "memes concerning the importance of paternity had no doubt infected Veronica's brain." Can't have much of a conversation with this gal. That is unless you're Bryan Byrd -- the neuroscience-dabbling, tuba-playing private eye the sisters hire to find out if their father had a secret family.
Because serendipity is the name of the game here, Lillian's unsuspecting sperm donor is an out-of-work actor who just happens to land a role on "Ordinary Matters," the soap Veronica writes for, and proceeds to sweep Veronica off her feet. Veronica alone knows about his awkward connection to her sister and agonizes about what to do. But by the time Bryan Byrd gets done sorting through the Moore family laundry, sleeping with the same guy is the least of the sisters' worries.
The plot takes a number of zany detours, all in keeping with the neuroscience theme (including a memorable visit with an asylum director who has Tourette's syndrome), but this novel never hits its stride as a screwball comedy. Its creaky mechanics and cardboard characters keep it from being more than a mildly diverting exercise of connect-the-dots. *
Julia Livshin is a staff editor at the Atlantic Monthly.