August 2004

Laura Leichum

fiction

Millard Fillmore, Mon Amour by John Blumenthal

Boy meets girl -- or in the case of Millard Fillmore, Mon Amour by John Blumenthal, highly neurotic wealthy loner meets highly neurotic interior decorator. Add in their psychiatrist and some kooky parents and exes and what you get is light comedic novel about how situations and people are not what they seem to be. The beautiful are not always good, the comfortable is not always right and the dull are not always, well, dull and your parents’ lives are rarely what they appear to be.

The wealthy loner in question is Plato G. Fussell (yes, he was teased throughout his childhood) navigates life burdened with any number of OCDs and, pesky political correctness aside, other people’s compulsive behavior is often just plain funny. He literally gets tongue-tied when he attempts to talk to someone of the opposite sex with linguistic compulsions such as saying words backwards and also transposing the beginning letters of two words -- word play that Blumenthal sprinkles throughout the novel with enough restraint to keep the joke running. So when he meets a woman who has her own extreme eccentricities and seems to understand his, he thinks he has met his match -- their first sexual encounter, by mutual agreement, closely resembles the preparations for a major surgical procedure. For Fussell, love is merely hormonal, and he is determined to keep it that way until he finally has to admit to heartbreak. But never fear, Dr. Wang is there to assist Fussell in exploring romance in more ways than even the good doctor is quite aware of. A comforting sign in his office proclaims “Don’t worry. Even the Earth is bipolar” and the emotional problems of these characters are such that readers might very well find themselves comforted by their more “normal” issues.

Fussell is also obsessed with death and, more specifically, obituaries. More than just a pastime, he happens to have turned his interest into a very lucrative business in pre-fab obituaries for celebrities and other well-knowns, hence his ability to spend all of his time nurturing his myriad of compulsions. As the title indicates, one of Fussell’s most unusual obsessions is with Millard Fillmore who is quite possibly the most forgettable of the American presidents. There is really nothing at all remarkable about Fillmore; however, Fussell has made it his mission to write a biography (read: one long obituary) of Fillmore projected to fill at least ten volumes that will ensure that his entire life is remembered. He is already hard at work on the first volume, The Early Early Years, including events which happened while Fillmore was in the womb. But is this mild-mannered president really who history thinks he is? Fussell’s research may suggest otherwise, yet the intrigue that Blumenthal arranges doesn’t really have much pay off.

With an endorsement from legendary comedy genius Carl Reiner that enthuses “This Blumenthal guy is one funny novelist,” one has to open this book with some expectations. Blumenthal does revel in the hilarity of the unlikely with great success although there are points where the oddities become just a bit strained. Some of the final plot twists are of the kind that you can expect from the tried and true formula of a Law & Order episode and Blumenthal wraps things up a bit too conventionally with each character’s life getting the obligatory one-year-later update. Despite a few flaws, Millard Fillmore, Mon Amour is a quick, entertaining read that kept me amused during a recent trip via Amtrak, so this novel can slip into your carry-on with little or no harm.

Millard Fillmore, Mon Amour by John Blumenthal
St. Martin's Griffin
ISBN: 0312323689
320 Pages