Book review: ‘Farewell, Dorothy Parker,’ by Ellen Meister
By Heller McAlpin,
FAREWELL, DOROTHY PARKER
By Ellen Meister
Putnam. 308 p. $26.95
What do you say about a book that makes you cry but also wince? Ellen Meister’s “Farewell, Dorothy Parker” helpfully supplies an answer. Her fourth novel is about a film critic named Violet Epps whose life is a mess because she’s forceful on paper but wimpy in person. When Violet slams a sappy but crowd-pleasing movie while admitting that she sobbed through the whole thing, readers of Meister’s whimsical but sentimental new novel are liable to experience a moment of rueful recognition.
Meister wastes no time enumerating her heroine’s woes. When it comes to supplying background information, she is as diligently explicit as a CIA file. Violet’s sister and brother-in-law were killed in a car crash with a drunken driver. Their 13-year-olddaughter, Delaney, survived but with permanent heart damage — physical as well as emotional. Although she moved into her sister’s Long Island home to care for her beloved niece, Violet lost custody to Delaney’s paternal grandparents when she clammed up in court under the attack of their intimidating attorney. Now Violet’s needy artist boyfriend — “Vincent van Loser” — is about to move in with her because she can’t bring herself to ditch him.
But who should come to blushing Violet’s rescue but her literary touchstone, Dorothy Parker! Never mind that the acid-tongued writer whom Tallulah Bankhead called “the mistress of the verbal hand grenade” died in 1967, a sad drunk. In Meister’s initially enticing scheme, Mrs. Parker materializes like a mischievous genie every time an antique guest book from her old haunt, the Algonquin Hotel, is opened. The reincarnated writer essentially offers Violet assertiveness training in exchange for bottomless gin refills.
Violet is well aware that she needs “to apply the courage she used in her reviews to her personal life” and not just in family court. At work, for instance, an arrogant editorial assistant must be put in her place. Violet also understands the root of her reticence — quickly reduced via mushy pop psychologizing to an unresolved sibling dynamic in which she learned to keep her wit and verve “locked inside a cold vault of shame” in order not to show up her less sharp older sister.
But Violet soon realizes that her mentor is trapped in limbo and needs help, too: “Something was keeping Dorothy Parker from heading toward the light.” She hopes to convince the self-deprecating writer that there are loved ones waiting for her on the other side, including her mother, who died just a few years after she was born.
Amidst the cocktails, schmaltz and one-liners, the ghost of Mrs. Parker stirs up havoc in Violet’s life, putting her career and custody suit in jeopardy and hexing (or at least over-sexing beyond her comfort) a budding romance with her dreamboat kung fu instructor (you read that right). Fading in and out of visibility like a bitter, sotted Samantha from “Bewitched,” the doyenne of the Algonquin Round Table presents herself to Violet’s friends and family as a “ghostwriter” named Daisy Buchanan. That Meister feels the need to explain that Daisy is a “Great Gatsby” character is just one indication of her sometimes heavy-handed comedy.
After an online uproar about one of her scathing reviews, Violet ends up on “Good Morning America” through Parker’s meddling. Ambushed by the show’s slick host, she’s taken to task for elitist condescension. Unable to muster her new friend’s rapier wit, Violet argues somewhat limply: “It’s easy to make people cry. A good filmmaker needs to do much more than that.”
In attempting to revive the legendary Dorothy Parker, Meister certainly aims to do more than merely elicit tears. She reveals the pathos behind the pith, and she instructs readers about the enduring legacy of a writer who produced not just “scathing reviews, clever jokes, quotable poetry, and insightful short stories” but also championed social causes.
Although classic Parker zingers sprinkled throughout the novel add sparkle, they have the unfortunate effect of making Meister’s own repartee pale by comparison. (To be fair, whose wouldn’t? Two Parker gems suitable for all audiences: In Hollywood “the streets are paved with Goldwyn”; “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses.”)
Alas, “Farewell, Dorothy Parker” is not as delectable as its fanciful premise leads us to hope for. It’s weakened by expository excesses, too many embarrassingly corny lines and facile psychologizing. But it did succeed in moving me to tears. So, to quote Violet, “If you’re eager for a good cry despite obvious manipulation,” get out your handkerchief.
McAlpin reviews books regularly for NPR and The Washington Post.
FAREWELL, DOROTHY PARKER By Ellen Meister Putnam. 308 p. $26.95