"I was the maverick, the little oddball who hated books," says Cordelia Miller, the youngest daughter of a famous poet, and the narrator of "Chez Cordelia." Her refusal to read as a child was regarded by her intellectual family as a small flaw, like crooked teeth, that she eventually would overcome, with a little help, and her older sisters, brother and parents -- an intimidating phalanx of scholars and writers -- kept presenting her with books and reading to her at every opportunity.
But being read to, curled up on a sofa with someone's arm around her, struck Cordelia as infinitely preferable to the solitariness of reading alone, and it only strengthened her resolve not to learn to read. "I saw learning to read," she says, "and I still believe rightly, as the end of childhood." Her will was broken finally in the third grade by a reading specialist, armed with chocolate.
It is one of the points of Kitty Burns Florey's clever second novel that once Cordelia's rebellion has run its course, the book-hating daughter deals with her family by writing a book about them. She has a good time at it, too, poking wicked fun at her father, who relentlessly tills the family for "material," and once likened Cordelia to a red maple tree. She did not appreciate the comparison; neither does she enjoy the sight of the neighborhood drugstore of the paperback edition of his latest poems, which contains one titled "meditation on a Daughter's Menses." Her mother -- a terrible cook who serves up a diet heavy in olives, anchovy paste and whole-meal biscuits -- is good-willed but preoccupied, turning out biographies of obscure literary figures. Cordelia's brother,, a Chaucer expert, has turned to crime writing and made a fortune. One sister, a Greek scholar, has spent nine years writing a verse epic. "I have seen the thing," Cordelia reports. "It was thicker than David Copperfield and it was partly in Greek." More remarkable still, she says, her father managed to stay wildly excited by the project for all nine years and promised to find a publisher for it, but Cordelia has "a feeling that this time his vast network of connections would break down." She pokes at her family's pretensions and their attitude toward money ("No good unless it's been grubbed after in some arty way," and there isn't too much of it), and she is embarrassed for them, although she comes to accept them as they are.
But Cordelia's purpose in writing her book is to try to make some sense of her experiences and to bring some order to her life. And what experiences they are! Be assured that only desperation would have reduced this Cordelia to words. Her troubles began innocuously enough: All she wanted was a simple, ordinary life, and she courted it in the person of her childhood sweetheart, Danny, a gentle innocent with beautiful red hair, who aspired only to run his father's grocery business some day.
Cordelia loves him as much as she loves his family, the old-fashioned market they run and their mundane life -- right down to their cookie jar full of Oreos and their cupboards of canned spaghetti sauce and brownie mix. After graduating from high school, Cordelia and danny marry, and briefly she achieves the kind of happiness she has dreamed of: She revels in the cooking and cleaning, decorating their tiny apartment in New Haven, visiting with neighbors, being a companion to her husband, entertaining friends. This life she has made does not disappoint her in the least, though needless to say it appalls her family. But no matter, before long it abruptly ends, and Cordelia finds herself ensnared in a web of evil when her husband disappears, then reappears a year later to commit a murder and implicate his wife.
To be sure, there is a risk involved in taking such an unassuming character as Cordelia for the subject of a book, but Kitty Florey makes it work. Florey's first novel, "Family Matters," was widely praised for its bright insights, humor and honesty, and in "Chez Cordelia" she displays these same qualities. Her evocation of a certain strata of New England society rings perfectly true, her story will keep you turning the pages and her style is smooth. I did sense something missing, as if the author has held back slightly in the telling of the story, for fear of being melodramatic. But she is far from it, and the impact of this story could have been greater with more details, more information provided at certain critical points. Florey, to borrow an expression, has not quite "written the hell out of it."
But this novel works, and Cordelia's story is affecting: Her Danny was not what he seemed, and her realization of this is poignant; her acquistion of wisdom, painful. "Chez Cordelia" works so well just because Cordelia is so unassuming and good (but no Nancy Drew). She asks little, she tries hard, and in return she gets a peck of troubles. She is simply a "prudent and sensible person," as she sees herself -- or at least that is what she tries to be -- and is forced to grapple with a wildly imprudent and erratic world.