Election: A Novel by Tom Perrotta
GP Putnam’s Sons, 1st edition, 1998
Genre: Satire, literary fiction
A suburban New Jersey high school teacher confronts a student body election gone haywire, in this darkly comic novel by the author of The Wishbones.
Who really cares who gets elected president of Winwood High School? Nobody–except Tracy Flick. Tracy’s one of those students of boundless energy and ambition who somehow find the time to do everything–edit the school paper and yearbook, star in the musical, sleep with her favorite teacher. Tracy’s heart is set on becoming president of Winwood, and whatever Tracy wants, Tracy gets. What’s more, her classmates seem to agree. With weeks to go before election day, her victory is nearly a foregone conclusion.
And that’s just the problem, according to Mr M aka Jim McAllister, faculty adviser tot he Student Government Association and a popular Winwood history teacher. In the name of democracy–not to mention a simmering grudge against Tracy Flick–Mr M recruits the perfect opposition candidate. Paul Warren is a golden boy, a football hero with a brain and a heart, eager to bulk up his meager resume. But the clear-cut two-way race is muddled when Paul’s younger sister unexpectedly enters the competition. Running on a platform of apathy, Tammy Warren is an anonymous sophomore, struggling with her sexuality and mourning the defection of her best friend Lisa, who has abandoned their friendship to become Paul’s campaign manager and girlfriend.
As Winwood High experiences election fever, Mr M is distracted by a sudden attraction to his wife’s best friend. The two dramas he has created–one personal and private, the other public and political–unfurl simultaneously, with all the players haring a life-altering conclusion.
Part satire, part soap opera, Election is an uncommon look at an ordinary American high school and the extraordinary people who inhabit it.
Book Report:I saw Election shortly after it came out on video (I was working at Hollywood Video then, and saw just about everything), and loved it from the start. I even purchased my own used copy from work (on VHS!) because it seemed to me to be the kind of movie I could enjoy any time–and I also wanted to be able to share it with others. That was back in 1999, and I had no idea till I read Little Children that it was based on a novel. (Or did I? I sometimes forget things, amazing as that might sound. I don’t believe I knew it was a novel.) Read the rest of this entry »
The Group by Mary McCarthy
Harcourt, 1st edition, 1991
Genre: Roman a clef, literary fiction, satire
Synopsis & Review: A week after Commencement 1933, a group of eight young women freshly graduated from Vassar meet on the occasion of Kay Strong’s wedding to Harald Petersen. The first of their group to be engaged, she is also the first to be married, and The Group will follow their lives from that point. They all come from wealthy backgrounds, but the Great Depression has left many in straightened circumstances. But those circumstances are also the means to allow them greater freedom as they live on their own and pursue various careers, some also becoming wives and mothers.
The narrative devotes chapters to each woman, moving in a vaguely chronological fashion, as flashbacks fill in the backgrounds. Following Kay’s wedding, Dottie finds herself entangled in an affair of the heart with a man who seems to have none. As Harald’s career founders, he and Kay become dependent on her salary, creating resentments. Helena, a young Hepburn-like woman whose family lives on the income of their income, is perhaps the most intelligent of the eight, but does nothing. Mary “Pokey” Prothero is a rich society girl who goes on to study veterinary medicine, flying her own little plane to school, and marrying young. Pretentious Anglophile Libby MacAusland tries getting her foot in the door in publishing, like any of thousands of young women with similar backgrounds. Polly flounders, trying to support herself and her half-mad spendthrift father, after losing her heart to a married man. Gentle, timid Priss, finds herself at odds with her husband, her family, and established medical doctrine when, after several miscarriages, she finally carries a baby to term, only to struggle with breastfeeding and scientific child-rearing practices. And Lakey, though prominent in the girls’ memories of Vassar, goes abroad to study art immediately after Kay’s wedding, not returning until war threatens and one of the Group dies. At the final funeral, the various triumphs and compromises that measure the lives of the Group are eclipsed by death and war.
Reading The Group is like attending a long cocktail party. As you read each chapter, another party guest comes up and initiates a conversation with you, all frivolity and gossip on the surface, masking the depths of feeling beneath. Everyone’s talking about everyone else, and by the end, you’ve got a good grasp on everyone in attendance, but in dribs and drabs. If only there were more canapés to go ‘round. Read the rest of this entry »
Little Children by Tom Perrotta
St. Martin’s Press, 1st edition, 2004
Genre: Satire, literary fiction
Synopsis & Review: After dropping out of grad school, Sarah dove into a quick marriage with an older, divorced man simply because she couldn’t bear her loneliness any longer. And at the novel’s start, she finds herself observing the other mothers with their children, desperately trying to distance herself from their suburban ordinariness. She reminds herself to think like an anthropologist in a phrase which perfectly encapsulates Sarah’s problems: “I’m a researcher studying the behavior of boring suburban women. I am not a boring suburban woman myself.” Sarah doesn’t love her husband, having settled for him, and her small daughter seems like a stranger, an inexplicable stranger. She cannot seem to get motherhood “right” as it is dictated by her peers in the park who have mastered the intricacies of napping, strollers, and snack time, and so Sarah flounders.
So enter the Prom King. Todd is a stay at home dad (SAHD), already unusual in this sheltered little world, but even more unusually, he is handsome, throwing the mothers into a fluster whenever he appears. Though they enjoy the titillation of his proximity, they also resent him because they feel they need to be pretty for his appearances. Mary Ann, the most domineering and conservative of the mothers, dares Sarah to approach Todd and get his number. And when Sarah does, things … change. They kiss. Something begins.
Though his background differs entirely from Sarah’s, being filled with football games, popularity, and frat parties, Todd suffers from much of the same malaise. He stays home with his son Aaron while his lovely wife Kathy works as a documentarian, supporting the family just until Todd passes the bar exam and becomes a lawyer who will rake in enough cash for them to live comfortably. Rather than study for his third try at the bar (no JFK Jr jokes, please), Todd spends his evenings watching skateboarders, envying their self-absorption (HINT HINT) and mourning his own rapidly disappearing youth. But Todd gets an opportunity to recapture his youthful glories on a brightly lit field when a former neighbor introduces him to an informal night football league, and again in Sarah’s worshipful admiration.
Elsewhere in the subdivision, a registered sex offender comes home to roost. Released from prison into his mother’s home, Ronnie McGorvey–convicted of exposing himself to a Girl Scout and widely believed to be responsible for the disappearance of a nine-year-old girl several years previous–brings a clandestine excitement to the community, which works itself into a frenzy of fear and rage at his presence. From flyers and town meetings to harassment and graffiti, Ronnie never stops being a focus for the anxieties of suburbia. His mother, however, thinks he just needs to settle down with a nice girl, and tries to set Ronnie up on dates. Ronnie’s appearance and subsequent ejection from the community pool, followed by a sudden rainstorm, becomes the catalyst that sends Sarah and Todd from mere flirtation and tentative friendship into adultery.
“Marry in haste, repent at leisure.” Those were Ma’s words when Laura announced that she and Almanzo wished to not delay their wedding. (About Laura’s choice of wedding dress, she said something like, “Marry in black, you’ll wish yourself back.” Ma wasn’t batting .300 in These Happy Golden Years.) However, Sarah in Tom Perrotta’s Little Children, proves Ma’s rule.
I watched Little Children first, and impressed, made a mental note to read the book. In January, with my nuptials fast approaching, I requested it from the MCL, but when I told my sisters that I’d read Revolutionary Road and meant to read Little Children (and The Group), they shouted “NO! BAD, NAUGHTY, STUPID GIRL!” and whacked me on the nose with a rolled up newspaper. I had my revenge, though: I made Eli watch it OnDemand late one night on our honeymoon. Nothing augurs a good marriage like that! Haha. So Little Children ended up being one of the first few books I read upon returning home and settling into a not very different life of marriage. Read the rest of this entry »
The Boyfriend School by Sarah Bird
Pocket Books, 1st printing, 1990
Genre: Fiction, romance, chick lit
Synopsis & Review: Gretchen Griner is an underpaid, under appreciated photographer for the Austin (that’s Texas) Grackle, part-time lover of Peter Overton Treadwell III (known as “Trout”), and major consumer of Cup O’ Soup. That is, until she meets Lizzie Potts—otherwise known as Viveca Lamoureaux, romance writer extraordinaire. Lizzie has a plan for Gretchen’s life—and it includes Lizzie’s brother Gus. But Gretchen has her own plan, and it does not feature a “wispy goon” named Gus. Of course, fate also has a plan for Gretchen, and it doesn’t care what Gretchen wants. So Lizzie will give Gretchen Gus, Gus will give Gretchen the man of her dreams, and among this oddball cast of marvelous misfits, someone just may discover the secret to true romance. (Jacket copy)
The Boyfriend School might have been the only worthwhile thing to come out of my seventh grade science class, other than my ability to flip my stool over while sitting on it and fall very hard without getting hurt. That sort of skill does come in very handy in life. I honestly don’t recall learning anything in the class, though I did get a kick out of the seventies anti-drug films they occasionally showed us (If you do goofballs, then you’ll die under a bridge. I still don’t know what a goofball is. Glue-sniffing?). But I also borrowed Sarah Bird’s The Boyfriend School from my BFF Tina’s friend Jennifer during that class, a really amusing and fun novel about appearances, romance, and a whole lot of meta-fiction about romance novels.
Gretchen gets assigned to cover the Luvboree, a Romance Writers’ Convention replete with multiple pen names and women in Southern belle costumes. Set to mock the women and the genre, Gretchen instead is befriended by Juanita Lusader (contemporaries and family sagas as Johni Lewis, and historicals as Lunita St John) and Lizzie Potts (Viveca Lamoreaux, medieval historicals), who expose her to romance and what it can mean for the women who read and write it. This opens the door for some discussions and asides on the value of the romance genre, and how it affects feminism; I especially enjoyed Gretchen’s reflections on the sisterhood of the genre, and how much that meant to her. Inspired and empowered by what she saw at the Luvboree, Gretchen sets out to write her own romance novel, Gain the Earth. Eager to transcend the genre and still suffering from condescension, she stumbles, and Lizzie and Juanita are there to help her understand the mechanisms of romance–both real and imagined. Read the rest of this entry »
The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery
originally published 1926
Bantam, 14th printing, 1989
Genre: Romance, satire, young adult
Synopsis & Review: Valancy Stirling—called ‘Doss” by her family because they’re jerks—turns thirty and is suddenly overwhelmed by how drab, unpleasant, and just plain loveless her life is. Mocked by her relatives for her unmarried state, her plainness, and her delicacy, she is treated like a child by her stuffy, judgmental relatives—and a halfwitted one at that. Worried over a chest pain, Valancy indulges in a very minor rebellion by going to a doctor not approved of by her family, but ends up feeling worse than ever when he races out of her appointment as though he forgot her entirely. A few days later, however, Valancy receives a letter from the doctor, a letter announcing that he has diagnosed her with a fatal heart malady, and that she has no more than a year to live, and perhaps far less. After a long, white night in which she examines her paltry life, Valancy rises in the morning with a sense of purpose.
She begins casting off her family’s oppressiveness by hacking away at the rose bush given her by Cousin Georgiana, a rose bush that has flourished, but never bloomed (HIGHLY SYMBOLIC). Her mother and cousin Stickles begin worrying as Valancy begins rearranging her bedroom furniture and answering back impudently instead of meekly assenting to any request/order. Uncle Benjamin notices something different when she fails to laugh along with his (terrible) jokes. But it is at a family dinner where Valancy lets loose which such a stream of perversity and unblushing observation that her family begins to think she’s quite mad.
Spurred on to ever greater heights of rebellion, Valancy then promptly packs her things and goes to stay with Roaring Abel Gay in order to care for her former schoolmate Cecily, who is dying after a long illness following the death of her out-of-wedlock child. Though the rest of the community shuns Cecily, Valancy makes the girl’s last days more comfortable, and earns the friendship of Roaring Abel and his friend, the mysterious and much gossiped about Barney Snaith. After Cecily’s death, Valancy presumes upon the friendship that has sprung up between herself and Barney, and explains to him that she too is dying, and would he marry her and help her to live her life tot he fullest for the time she has left?
Life with Barney is everything Valancy could have dreamt of, and she has never been happier. The only fly in her ointment is knowing that it will not last–and wondering whether Barney could learn to love her as she does him.
Oh, Lucy Maud, you are wicked! Who else could pen such a delightful romance and biting social satire in one slim novel? The Blue Castle is marvelously entertaining, and so funny–SO FUNNY. When Valancy let’s it all hang out at the family supper, anyone would be hard put to not laugh. It’s really a pity that Lucy Maud spent so much time writing so many series books when her stand-alone adult output is so very good. Read the rest of this entry »
The Joyous Season by Patrick Dennis
originally published 1964
Green Mansion Press, 1st printing, 2002
Genre: Literary fiction, humor
Synopsis & Review: Daddy always said that Christmas is a joyous season when suicides and hold-ups and shoplifting and like that reach a new high and that the best place to spend the whole thing is a Moslem country.
Nearly-eleven-year-old Kerry (“which is short for Kerrington, for cripes sake, spelled with a K and an E and not with a C and an A”) and his little sister Missy have been shipped off from their Manhattan home to spend the summer with their Gran in East Haddock (“Boresville, USA”). The reason for their exile is their parents’ divorce, and event Kerry describes in great detail. It all begins on Christmas Day, when Kerry and Missy accidentally wake up their parents while trying out Missy’s new Martian Outer Space Gun. Only Daddy thinks there’s a burglar in the apartment, and bursts in on them with a loaded gun. Then their Uncle HA regifts an ancient chemistry set to Kerry, and while those stale chemicals cook, grandmothers Gran and Ga-ga show up with some of the worst presents ever, and Mom finds out that daddy never mailed the two hundred Christmas cards she addressed by hand. When the chemistry set explodes in Kerry’s bedroom, tempers do too, and HA is the recipient of a shiner from Daddy–and then Mom throws Daddy out.
Over the next six months, Kerry observes (and eavesdrops) as Mommy is wooed by her divorce lawyer, the staid Sam Reynolds, and daddy pursued by chic fashion editor Dorian Glen. Caught between their parents and their families, Kerry and Missy carry through the mess with aplomb.
I love Auntie Mame. Love it. Adore it. I grew up watching it and wanting to be just like Mame Dennis. I finally read Patrick Dennis’ novel Auntie Mame in intermediate school (not having realized that it was based on a novel for some time), and thought it hilarious. And I must say, it baffles me that I never noticed that Patrick Dennis had written not just a few, but several other novels (did you know that he’s the only writer to have three books on the New York Times bestseller list simultaneously?). How does such a travesty happen? I am mystified, and more than a little hurt. Read the rest of this entry »