where the writers are
Postcards From the Past
Published Work: 
Reviewer: 
Meredith Bryan
Source: 
The New York Observer

At the beginning of Maria Semple’s debut novel, This One Is Mine, multimillionaire L.A. music executive David Parry checks his brokerage account and finds it “up from yesterday, and the Dow was down eighty points.” He muses privately that “the hard part wasn’t making the money, it was keeping the money.”

How quaint.

This is the first of many clues signaling that Ms. Semple’s L.A., though still familiar, is already a relic: rich studio wives, fancy cars, renovations of sprawling modern homes with ocean views, toddlers named Django and oblivious indifference to the outside world. The novel hails from that newly vanished era when coastal America was mostly busy tripping over its wealth (Sex and the City creator Darren Star contributes a blurb); before “mortgage-backed securities”; before “Prop 8”; before satire about the wealthy began to lose its comic edge.

But though they’re shallow, condescending, desperate and solipsistic, Ms. Semple loves her characters wholeheartedly, which helps to elevate this novel above its beach-fare brethren, even in this radically altered socioeconomic context. The reader will forgive the book its clunky beginnings (“he knew then there’d be a part of her he’d never possess,” we are informed, of David’s first date with his wife) and succumb to the characters’ retro preoccupations, their naïve optimism, their un-self-conscious spending, their pitiable inner narratives (the story is told from the three protagonists’ points of view) and their sappy desire to be loved.

DAVID IS A RECORD-INDUSTRY visionary whom everyone in town wants a piece of, despite the fact that he’s widely known as an asshole. Then there’s David’s younger sister, Sally, a manipulative, romantically challenged fitness instructor in her late 30s so desperate to land a rich man that she chases a TV sports commentator with Asperger’s. The real star of the novel, though, is David’s wife, Violet, an erudite, Sondheim-loving former television writer who, overweight and unemployed since her daughter’s birth, spends much of the novel driving aimlessly around town accumulating beauty treatments and Hermès while sinking further into infatuation with a short, broke, drug-addled bassist named Teddy.

“Lots of women would gladly get called a dumb fuck a couple of times a week in exchange for not having to work,” Violet tells herself, shrugging off David’s antagonism. (As the book opens, he berates her about household matters while she serves him breakfast of “wheat toast, sheep’s-milk cheese, sliced apples sprinkled with lemon juice and freshly grated nutmeg.”) But this situation is actually eating Violet alive. In one shocking and memorable scene, she graphically screws Teddy in her impeccably designed living room while David is away on a weekend yoga retreat.

Violet’s destructive, all-consuming lust for Teddy is the engine that drives This One Is Mine. That she’s too smart to attempt to buy his love does not prevent her from doing so; indeed, the ways in which we buy and control each other, reducing ourselves to currency whose value is reflected in our partners, is a common theme here. Money becomes a character in its own right, particularly as it ravages Teddy, the only one without a cent. Of course, money perhaps looms larger than the author intended. Did people once buy $600 baby outfits? And that was funny?

HERSELF A FORMER TELEVISION writer (for shows including Arrested Development), Ms. Semple knows how to hold an audience’s attention. She doesn’t waste time justifying her characters’ improbable epiphanies, which mostly occur between punchy, action-packed scenes. (An exception is David’s, at the aforementioned quack yoga retreat, where he grapples in the dark in disgust with another man’s balls before recalling Violet’s virtues and—against all former evidence of his nature and that of men in general—resolves to forgive her her treachery.) There’s phone sex in the car, public diarrhea, accidental Hepatitis-C-infected drug needle sharing, the near-death of a child. Though she’s eviscerating a way of life that has already lost much of its ability to shock, Ms. Semple elicits more gasps than eye rolls.

Take this withering moment: “Sally had played everything right. The dating, the proposal, the pregnancy, the wedding. The one thing she had overlooked was that Jeremy was retarded. And chances were, the baby in her belly was, too.”

Teddy remains the book’s only inscrutable presence, a character whose inner workings we rarely glimpse and whose motivations remain unclear. Quick-witted, lewd and possibly a liar, he scrapes by on food from AA meetings; Violet tries to snare him with brown rice from Whole Foods. Their liaison is in some ways a send-up of the age-old wrong-side-of-the-tracks romance, wherein Teddy represents all Violet stands to lose, and also all she’s missing. Yet his repeated refusals of her nonetheless provoke the book’s more uncomfortably icky feelings.

Almost everyone gets what’s coming to them, including a shot at redemption—which is unsurprising. What is surprising is that the reader cares at all for these hapless creatures, and that, in our era of schadenfreude as public sport, the novel’s mostly happy ending is … deeply satisfying.