By Barbara Quick
Donald I. Fine. 217 pp. $18.95
It's presumptuous of a reviewer to say that she wishes the author had written a different book, but that's what I kept thinking while reading "Northern Edge," a first novel about a woman's adventures working with a field crew of biologists on the Alaskan coast. The blurb on the jacket says that Barbara Quick's book "grew out of journals she kept during two summers she spent in Alaska." But the resulting novel didn't quite grow enough. While Quick's description of the natural landscape has an authentic, poetic voice, the story just doesn't ring true.
The novel's main character is Tay McElroy, almost 30, in a dead-end job as an administrative assistant in San Francisco. Tay's ankles are too thick, her boss calls her "my girl," and her boyfriend just told her he's gay. Over a pasta salad lunch, her best friend says, "Your life turned into a big blur. ... All that's happening is that you're getting older." Tay is home bleaching the hair on her upper lip, realizing that she needs a change.
By Chapter 2, Tay is headed for Alaska, thinking she has a temporary job as an office manager in Fairbanks. At the airport, she is met by a grizzly character with tobacco juice in his mustache who tells her that the office job fell through. But would she be interested in counting seabirds in a remote camp on the Northwestern Coast? Well, she didn't really pack the right clothes, and she doesn't know anything about birds, but she did want an adventure and she has already shlepped all the way to Alaska. And so before you can say aurora borealis, Tay -- geared and gussied up with hip boots, flannel shirts and her own Swiss army knife -- is ready for a trek in the Alaskan wilderness.
Like Goldie Hawn's Private Benjamin, Tay is ill-suited for life in a place where there are no blow-dryers or bistros that serve caffelatte. She is not a dog sled kind of gal. And her nose, dang it, always turns red when it's cold outside. Well, could be cute. And would be cute if we liked the main character. Unfortunately, Tay, whiney and insufferably self-reflective, does not have a freckle's worth of Goldie's charm.
Tay's adventures begin before the trek with a one-night stand with Mike, a hunky biologist who has no discernible personality. Complications arise. Mike is married to Phoebe who is also a member of the team. Tay didn't know Mike was married when she slept with him, and he didn't say. Tay and Phoebe are the ones who really hit it off. Phoebe knows Tay has slept with Mike, but seems only vaguely upset ("He's always been like that ..."). Phoebe and Tay spend a lot of time together. Tay learns to use a gun to protect herself against bears. Phoebe and Tay swim for their lives in the fierce waters of the Chukchi. They lug a dead whale to shore and rip out its jawbone. In other words, they face the dangers and majesty of survival in a hostile environment and do a lot of bonding.
Phoebe is Tay's biological and spiritual mentor. She is a gorgeous Amazon of a woman who builds boats, boils blubber and reads Iris Murdoch (what she is doing with Mike is anybody's guess). Tay adores Phoebe and this relationship serves as the focus of the story. But Tay's fawning admiration of the fabulous Phoebe -- there's a lot of comparison with Venus and Botticelli and assorted mythic references -- is, well, kind of annoying. After a while, you can't much take either of them.
The conclusion of the novel is haphazard and dreadfully contrived -- involving an unexpected pregnancy and a murderous intruder wielding -- if you can believe it -- a walrus penis bone, as well as symbols of birth and rebirth.
Fiction is made-up stories. But it doesn't work if the author doesn't give us reasons to believe. Quick's writing is often in touch with the beauty and the rhythms of the natural landscapes. I suspect that the actual journals, describing her challenge in this alien and exotic territory, would have been a better read.
The reviewer's most recent novel is "No Regrets."