THE WONDER SPOT
By Melissa Bank. Viking. 324 pp. $24.95
If Holden Caulfield had been a middle-class Jewish girl, he might have sounded something like young Sophie Applebaum, the protagonist of Melissa Bank's hilarious and clever first novel, The Wonder Spot. About a parental tic, Sophie observes: "My mother told the same stories over and over -- maybe twenty-five in all; if you added them up, there were only about two hours of her life that she wanted me to know about." The Catcher in the Rye comparison ends, however, with the first chapter. Thereafter Bank favors Sophie -- and us -- with what J.D. Salinger denied Holden: adulthood.
The Wonder Spot comes after Bank's fiction debut in 1999, a generously praised collection of linked short stories called The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing. Following your own successful first act is desirable, of course, but it's still tough. Happily, Bank's second book pulls it off with panache.
Bank's sharp wit and streamlined prose serve Sophie's exquisitely honed female sensibility, placing the author squarely in the tradition of Clare Boothe Luce and Nora Ephron. Like them, Bank possesses a prodigious talent for snappy one-liners, and her self-deprecating anecdotes belie intelligence and sophistication. In short, the novel purrs.
After a childhood in a small town in Pennsylvania and the obligatory stint in college, Sophie finds her way to New York City where she does the things you do: look for an apartment, a job and a boyfriend -- the apartment search being, of course, by far the most thrilling (and harrowing) of the three quests.
She freeloads off one brother, who's living on the far reaches of the Upper West Side with his Orthodox girlfriend, until Sophie's passive-aggressive refusal to keep kosher abruptly ends her first urban idyll, and she is forced to move on. A few months' living with her other brother in the West Village soon catapults her to the Bronx, where she shacks up with her meddling grandmother. And this is only the beginning of her adventures in real estate. Her endless sublets include the "Heiress," a basement studio in Washington Square smelling of eau de kitty litter, and the "Hot Plate," a walk-up in Hell's Kitchen that won't come clean no matter how hard she scrubs.
As for the boyfriends, they range from a 9 on the Lothario Richter scale to a certified mensch. When a potential lover tells Sophie he's an architect, she thinks, "Of course you are. Like Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men, you are a man who fights for justice and builds tall buildings. You are a man who will change the skyline of my life." After meeting a stunningly beautiful woman who has flirted with Sophie's rock-star boyfriend, she says to him, "Good thing she was just a model. . . . I think that would've been really hard if she were a super-model."
The job search is, unsurprisingly, the dullest of Sophie's pursuits and includes the requisite publishing-assistant duty, the sale of her soul in advertising and a conscience-soothing turn in public television. No slouch, Sophie decides to combine her quest for self-fulfillment and a mate by signing up for a class on "mixed media." After a noble effort the class is a bust for Sophie, artistically and romantically, but she takes comfort in the success of her classmates: "Margo passed me on her way out with Bert, and her 'good-bye' was the unified kick of a hundred Rockettes."
In the end Sophie never finds the perfect job or the perfect boyfriend, but she finds a way to have perfect moments as often as she can. The material, now and again, may be overworked, but it is, after all, the stuff of life, and Melissa Bank has made it the stuff of a marvelous novel. *
Jenny McPhee is the author of the novels "The Center of Things" and "No Ordinary Matter."