But first, say hello to Dorothy Parker. How little I knew about her! Ellen Meister has read just about everything ever printed about America’s funniest woman, whose one-liners from the 1920s are still relevant almost a hundred years later. Without delivering any info-dumps, Meister skillfully weaves facts about Parker into a gripping story about a woman fighting for custody of her niece while both suffer the loss of loved ones. Forgiving the dead for dying, letting go, moving on: themes like these never go out of style.
The prose is excellent–lightyears above the majority of indie novels I read. The Big Six publishers may have excluded a lot of good writers, but they also served as gatekeepers to spare book buyers from mediocre writing, or worse, and there are a lot of novels out there that are worse than mediocre.
Some reviews complain that the author isn’t as witty as Parker herself was. Who cares? It’s still a good novel about a great American woman who deserves to be remembered.
Some of the plot devices are a little lame, like a ghost who can materialize only when a certain book is opened. I can accept that. I’m less tolerant when an author lapses into some of the conventions of the romance genre: torture your protagonist! Do it by creating misunderstandings and having the heroine leap to stupid conclusions, and letting the hero be estranged from her until she gets over her neurotic or silly or fearful reasons for dumping him. If this stuff happens in real life, I’m glad no one ever tells me about it. “I really love Tom, but I’m worried things happened too quickly, and I’d rather let him think I’m in love with someone else than tell him what REALLY happened” –ie., the devil made me do it, or the ghost of Dorothy Parker got into me, and I feel too embarrassed ever to see your face again. (Okay, I may exaggerate to make a point, but this was a pivotal event in the novel, and I couldn’t believe the heroine being so…what? Define “it”–? Oh, no, you should read all about IT yourself. What a great scene!! But….what an unsatisfying reason we get for seeing this great start come to such an abrupt end, with the heroine looking heartless while the poor jilted guy begs to know, “What did I do?”
In spite of that speed bump in the narrative, I kept turning pages.
Then the niece did something stupid that escalated into a series of stupid things, which is how most novels and movies operate. I kept turning pages. Trouble is, if an author avoids plot devices, there isn’t much of a plot. Without people doing stupid things, we wouldn’t have operas, movies and novels.
For all the little plot devices that annoyed me, more things amused me, enlightened or moved me. The personality and wit of Dorothy Parker, the dialogue, the characters, and the masterful prose of Ellen Meister kept me reading past bedtime. I’m a little miffed that not all the historical details are true to life, but at least an author’s note at the end tips off the uninformed reader which little details to disregard. Poetic license, eh?
The struggle of Violet Epps to be assertive, to overcome a certain dynamic that tortured her from childhood to adult — THAT is the real heart of the novel. A woman who’s bright, witty and worthwhile has been shot down — shut down — and it takes her well into adulthood to reclaim her true self, give free reign to her voice. Ellen Meister, I can’t thank you enough for capturing that on paper.
Not all readers will love the book for the same reasons. Some may find certain conventions of genre fiction off-putting. Parker scholars may see shortcomings that people like me, who know little about her, won’t notice. But anyone who’s wished for the kind of confidence, wit and assertiveness Dorothy Parker is famous for is sure to enjoy this novel as much as I did.