By Corene Lemaitre
Carroll & Graf. 276 pp. $23.95
Ellen Kaplan, a 23-year-old woman, comes home to her parents' house in Philmont, Pa., on Philadelphia's Main Line. She's been in Europe for two years and hasn't written home once but still is mightily miffed to see that someone else is living in her room. That someone is April, a 23-year-old "white trash" female who has persuaded Ellen's older brother, James, to give up pursuing a PhD at Berkeley and come back to live with the elder Kaplans. Instead of sharing James's room with him like any other girlfriend in the world, April has taken over Ellen's room, where she has replaced Venetian blinds with fluffy curtains and taken down Ellen's Kandinsky prints in favor of Bible quotations and a picture of a Christian pop singer.
This is what happens by Page 4. Already a few little questions have come up. Why is it that April has her own room in this house? If she's so poor, where has she found the money to redecorate? And after an absence of two years, during which Ellen has had absolutely no contact with her family, why is she so sure that her brother is still at Berkeley working on his PhD? How does Ellen recognize that the woman in the poster is a Christian pop singer?
By Page 10, we find that Ellen's mother--just today!--has cleared the family shelves of all health food and gone on a shopping spree, buying Diet Coke, Doritos, Miracle Whip, "Oreos, potato chips, chocolate milk mix, six TV dinners, individual pudding packs . . . hot dogs, fish fingers and a dozen flat sausages sandwiched between rubbery rolls, limp lettuce and squashed eggs." All this has been bought for April, of course, as part of what Ellen's mother calls "a fresh start . . . for all of us." But how come April has had time to redecorate her whole room before Mrs. Kaplan gets it into her mind to stock up on redneck food?
"April Rising" is one peculiar book. The entire premise of the novel is: Will Ellen get her room back? We are left to ponder this burning question as Ellen talks to James, who has decided he wants to be a garbage man; to her younger brother, Matthew, an 11-year-old computer genius who has lived in the basement forever; to her mother, who used to be a hippie and actually have friends; and to her father, who dances in the front yard of his "posh Main Line" home in his yarmulke. Ellen wants her room back. She wants to be the apple of her big brother's eye. She wants her father to give her some money. She's furious that her family isn't glad to see her.
As the novel moves forward, Ellen plots with people in her old circle of friends to put James in contact with Courtney, a femme fatale friend of theirs from high school, so that James will fall for her, thus getting April out of Ellen's bedroom. As subplot here, when Ellen asks her father for money, he states that if she will publish an article for anyone, he himself will give her $3,000, so that she can go away again and do what she wants. Ellen goes down to the neighborhood newspaper, the Philmont Organ, and is given an assignment to investigate whether Eamon Grosworthy, a local steel magnate, is actually planning to sell his extensive landholdings to a rapacious developer and ruin the affluent community of Philmont.
Books like this are why book reviewers go gray. Corene Lemaitre is without doubt a good-hearted woman; she's made a good-faith effort here. Giving "April Rising" the review it "deserves" would be like killing an ant with a nuclear weapon. It's easy enough to say that this book shouldn't have been published, but it has been published; some people somewhere must have gone along with this.
The usage the author employs here is traditional English: She spells "color" as "colour"; she writes "cigarette packets" for cigarette packages. This novel could have been published in England first--the English just assuming that landowners in Philadelphia's posh Main Line dance around in their front yards and that 23-year-old American men and women routinely refuse to move out of their parents' homes or go to work. Then, once it found an English publisher--if it did--some benighted Americans may have thought: "Candy bars! Land developers! Gilded youth of the Main Line!" Somebody somewhere should have thought that it might have been a good idea to give this novel a good line-editing, but that, of course, takes time and attention. And that's the last thing anybody thought about.
An editor might have asked about characterization: Did that two years in Europe affect Ellen Kaplan at all? The trip is never mentioned. Is April herself a collection of anything more than pop-culture prejudices? Where do all these redneck stereotypes come from? Ellen loves James, but why is that? He's not lovable at all. What about the "Nazi" Frederick? He only exists for one sex scene and a "happy ending." Could we see more of him (or less)?
What about plot? Isn't 276 pages a fairly long time to thrash out the question of who gets the bedroom? (Especially since April should be sleeping with her boyfriend anyway.) What about time considerations? (Wouldn't James and Courtney have known each other forever?) Each chapter here seems to have been written separately, out of context, especially the museum and coffeehouse chapters. What about space? How can that cheap roller rink be within walking distance of Ellen's elegantly appointed house?
Where was the editor here? Why has this Corene Lemaitre been so ill served? Laziness and ill attention rule in these pages, and it's a shame.
Carolyn See, whose reviews appear in Style on Fridays.
Upcoming in Book World
The following books are scheduled to be reviewed next week in Style:
A GREAT WALL: Six Presidents and China: An Investigative History, by Patrick Tyler. Reviewed by John Byron.
THE LADIES AUXILIARY, by Tova Mirvis. In this novel, an outsider shakes up an Orthodox Jewish congregation in Memphis. Reviewed by Debra Spark.
SAY GOODBYE: The Laurie Moss Story, by Lewis Shiner. A fictional singer-songwriter's rapid rise and equally rapid fall. Reviewed by Eric Brace.
SOME TIMES IN AMERICA: And a Life in a Year at the New Yorker, by Alexander Chancellor. A British journalist's stateside sojourn and some "Talk of the Town." Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley.
MEMORIES OF A PURE SPRING, by Duong Thu Huong. During and after the Vietnam War, a composer and a singer conduct a love affair in this novel by a Vietnamese dissident. Reviewed by Carolyn See.