Published: Apr 20, 2009
Novels set in Los Angeles are tricky. If they're about rich, powerful people, they're generally laced with irony, as if to pay homage to Joan Didion, Nathaniel West, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Bruce Wagner. Why irony? Because --- as “everybody” knows --- rich, powerful people are too busy with trainers, hairdressers, lovers and the occasional work crisis to be burdened by recognizable human feelings or problems.
Maria Semple, a first novelist with lots of TV writing and a LA childhood behind her, will have none of this. David Parry may be mega-rich --- he's got $32.8 million, not bad for a poor boy who started as an accountant and, through a lot of competence and a little well-timed luck, made it to the top of the music business --- but as he stands on the terrace of his grand house looking out at the Pacific, he notices something that could happen to anyone who lives West of Hollywood.
There's a dead gopher floating in his Jacuzzi.
David calls to his wife. Violet's still asleep. A coked-out model? Nope. An award-winning former TV writer who got an upgrade to wife and mother. She's compelling, but no oil painting --- her daughter's almost two, but Violet's still wearing maternity jeans. Which inspires this:
Last night, during the Clippers-Nuggets game, a horrifying fact had flashed on the screen. Allen Iverson weighed 165 pounds. In other words, Violet was one pound heavier than the NBA's star point guard. She was completely disgusting.
A completely disgusting rich woman with no career is well on the path to trouble. His name is Teddy Reyes. He's a bass player. And a golfer. In AA. Poor. Alternately potty-mouthed (“What positions do you like?”) and eloquent (“Hepatitis C is the consolation prize God gives the junkies he spares from AIDS.”)
Okay, we've got a melody and a beat. Now add some texture. There's another woman in this novel, David Parry's sister. Sally's an almost-ballet star whose career ended abruptly when a toe had to be amputated --- this lifelong diabetic never could quite take good care of herself. But now she has a chance for major happiness. Having wangled a date with Jeremy White, a sports analyst who is a genius at crunching stats, she's poised to marry him. And her timing couldn't be better: Jeremy has just landed a seat on a Sunday morning sports show.
Two women, two men. This One Is Mine catches them at the top of the slide --- shall we watch them go down? Maria Semple has a deadly eye and a knowing ear for all that is most human about her characters: Violet buying “size-large lingerie” at a mall “deep in the valley”, Sally freaking with delight at The Ivy when Adam Sandler comes over to thank Jeremy “for your Rose Bowl pick last year”. Who can't relate?
Because it's easy to care for these women, we want what seems good for them: for Sally to land the guy, for Violet to get her groove back. But Semple doesn't flinch from what is achingly human about her characters, especially Violet, who plunges recklessly into an affair. For a smart woman, she takes her husband for a fool. And he's not. He finds out. And is he pissed:
Violet would become one of those divorcées deformed by plastic surgery who descended into madness and isolation because all they could do was talk about how evil their ex was. Violet would be forced back into the workplace. She liked houses; she could always become a realtor. He pictured her face on the bus bench: VIOLET PARRY, THE CONDO QUEEN OF ENCINO.
This is not the same David who, when his kid sister was young, brought special candy to the houses where she'd be trick-or-treating, so she wouldn't have a diabetic trauma. Or is it? In a long marriage, he's never cheated. Not just out of respect and affection for his wife, but also for his conviction that “infidelity turns good people bad.”
Semple is at her best when she's grappling with our double nature --- she almost makes me understand why Violet would be obsessed with a loser like Teddy Reyes. (Okay, I know the reason: He's not her husband. He's fresh. Whatever else, he delivers “new” sex. And that's hot. But still....)
I'm holding something back here, and it's my disappointment with the last eighty pages. As a domestic drama --- as a story of love and misunderstanding --- this book is sublime. It's got wit and humor and a laugh-out-loud chapter in a New Age retreat. It's even got a happy ending that seems well-earned.
Alas, that ending is not the ending of the book. There's more, and much of it is antic farce. How did that happen? This book isn't Chick Lit --- Semple describes it as “a modern-day Victorian novel about marriages and relationships in LA.” So it's simply stunning that it turns a sharp corner into the sort of plotting you see in “The Wedding Planner”. (When there's a cupcake display at a wedding, it's going down, right?) Reading the last few chapters, I thought --- as I often do these days --- that somebody should send novelists a memo: A novel no longer has to fill 300 pages, 200 will do just fine.
For the characters, the complexity, the drop-dead dialogue, “This One Is Mine” is a spectacular debut --- Maria Semple is the real thing. If only I were her editor!
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To visit Maria Semple's web site, click here.