Quindlen returns: Snappy writing doesn't make a good novel by itself

Review Novel

September 03, 2006|By Diane Scharper | Diane Scharper,Special to the Sun

Rise and Shine

Anna Quindlen

Random House / 269 pages / $24.95

As Anna Quindlen's novel Rise and Shine begins, Meghan Fitzmaurice, celebrated host of a morning talk show and noted for the perfect riposte, is about to destroy her reputation.

Her guest, Ben Greenstreet, is explaining why he has left his wife of 18 years for the woman serving as surrogate parent of their baby. Worse, this woman has taken $20,000 from Mrs. Greenstreet to perform the service.

"So you see this as commentary on the evils of surrogacy, and not as a case of a man leaving his wife for a woman fourteen years his junior," says Meghan, shortly before she pauses for a commercial break. Unfortunately, her mike is live when she utters her next words, a profanity that makes Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic comments and George W. Bush's recent four-letter word appear tame.

What happens when a television personality, praised for her eloquence, makes an obscene comment on the air? And what does that mean for the rest of us? The plot of Quindlen's anticlimactic tale considers those questions among others as it follows 47-year-old Meghan and her sister, Bridget.

Quindlen tells the story through Bridget's eyes, which lessens the impact of Meghan's career-altering gaffe. But this method of narration also gives Quindlen a chance to do what she does best: use her writing as a vehicle to explore issues that relate to contemporary family life while showcasing her bright one-liners. Here's one of many examples: "She [Meghan] looks like a roof shingle in a high wind these days."

Four years apart and orphaned in early childhood, Meghan and her younger sister take turns mothering each other. Right now, it's Meghan's turn to be mothered by Bridget, who becomes Supermom after Meghan disgraces herself and after she learns that Meghan's husband, Evan, has another woman.

To escape her troubles, Meghan hides out in a Jamaican resort owned by a wealthy admirer, while Bridget pleads with her to return. Bridget also becomes a mom to Meghan's left-behind teenage son, Leo, letting him live with her while giving him a job working at the women's shelter that she supervises - a gesture that backfires.

Other characters include Bridget's assistant, Tequila, a former drug addict with what Bridget calls a "pogo stick of a personality." Tequila, like Bridget, has a gift for verbal pyrotechnics and makes pronouncements on everything from racism ("We all got real good at figuring out what you white folks want, then playing the role") to parental supervision of teenage girls: "No nephew gonna get pregnant, mess up his life for once and for all."

Bridget's 67-year-old boyfriend, Irving, is a Bronx cop with a gruff exterior and a kind heart. Like Tequila, he's outspoken, though not necessarily diplomatic, and is given to sarcastic sound bites that point out the obvious.

With a tendency toward insider Roman Catholic jokes, Bridget speaks in a shorthand that sounds good until you think about it. "How is it possible that you make bringing someone flowers sound like the Stations of the Cross?" she asks Meghan, who sidesteps the question, perhaps because it doesn't have an answer.

A columnist for Newsweek and formerly for The New York Times, where she garnered a Pulitzer Prize, Quindlen has written four other novels. With the exception of One True Thing, which was acclaimed by both readers and critics and was made into a movie, Quindlen's fiction has received mixed reviews.

This is partly because her characters and plots take a back seat to her interest in social concerns and partly because her writing style is focused more on itself than on the story line. With snappy sentences, sparkling metaphors and scintillating dialogue, Quindlen's novels generally contain lackluster characters, who are dangerously close to being stereotypical, and a so-so plot. Ditto Rise and Shine.

Examining what Quindlen calls the fictions of New York City life, the narrative feels like a column playing dress-up. Its subjects are family relationships, infidelity, surrogate parenting, homelessness, single parenting, drug use, domestic violence, and (even) cosmetic surgery. ("I could look directly into her eyes, which had the preternatural stare of someone who has had lower and upper lifts.")

Bridget spouts similar witticisms on almost every page. But soon, her clever thoughts clump together like old mascara. And despite Quindlen's efforts to pump up the action when one character is seriously wounded and another learns she is pregnant with twins, the story sags beneath the writing.

Diane Scharper is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and a teacher at Towson University.

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