September 2004

Colleen Mondor


No Ordinary Matter by Jenny McPhee

Reviewing a Jenny McPhee novel without giving away critical plot points is not easy. Without car chases or crazed murderers, McPhee still puts her characters through some of the most convoluted series of events found in literature today. The most impressive thing is that she accomplishes this largely through conversation and the simple, normal moments of human interaction that everyone experiences. Her characters fall in love, resolve issues with siblings and parents, realize their own secret dreams. But since it is Jenny McPhee wielding the pen, they do this with a healthy dose of science and surprise that never fails to leave her readers shaking their heads and grinning over the final, fabulous pages.

No Ordinary Matter is about two sisters, Veronica and Lillian. Veronica writes for a soap opera while working at night on a musical she hopes to one day bring to the stage. Lillian is a driven successful neurologist who has little in common with her sister. The book is framed around their monthly meetings at a Manhattan pastry shop where they struggle to find conversation that does not further alienate each other. The catalyst for the book is Lillian’s sudden pregnancy, the result of a manipulated one night stand with an actor she treated in the emergency room. The actor, Alex, has no idea that Lillian is expecting his child or that she used a doctored condom to make that happen. While Veronica is happy for her sister, the pregnancy is not what drives the plot. It is merely the match strike for a narrative that takes off and flies in the chapters that follow.

In very rapid succession (and I’m not giving anything away as it happens early in the book), Veronica meets and falls for Alex. She is clearly torn about pursuing a relationship but of course a lot of animal magnetism makes ignoring him a little too much to bear. And then things get even more complicated, in ways you absolutely can not imagine. But that would be giving away too much. You’ll just have to trust me and hang in there through the end where it all works out so well you will hardly believe how handily McPhee has managed it.

And there’s a lot more. The girls lost their father to a car accident when they were both young and have many unresolved questions surrounding the tragedy. Their mother is distant, both literally and figuratively, so they turn to one of the coolest private detectives to ever hit fiction to find their answers. (He plays the tuba in a jazz band, can you stand it?!) Brian Byrd exchanges clever repartee with Lillian in a way that Nick and Nora would admire (and Hepburn and Tracy wished they could have duplicated) and they throw neurological discoveries at each other over business meetings as if they were attending a high powered medical convention. But none of it ever goes over your head and all of it is relevant to the plot. Bryan wants to understand Lillian, who wants to understand herself and her need to have a child while questioning the motives of her sister who can not understand her attraction for Alex who… well, what happens with Alex really needs to stay out of this review. But he has questions also, and they all lead back to origins and identity and issues of personal choice. Are we directed by science or superstition? Is it fate or choice that directs our every move? Who are you really McPhee asks her characters, and the Moore sisters find that they really do not know.

But it is all resolved in the end. With the help of a doctor with Tourette’s Syndrome, the historical machinations of Tammany Hall, a lot of really good Hungarian pastry and some very demanding soap opera actors, the sisters persevere and learn the truth behind long held family secrets. Just as she accomplished with her first book The Center of Things, McPhee leaves you shaking your head in wonder at the end of No Ordinary Matter. It’s funny, sad, intellectual and hysterical. More than anything, McPhee makes it clear that she knows how to write smart, sexy, and intensely interesting characters. This book was a blast and the best cure for readers sick of silly summer reading but looking for something less than a doorstop-heavy treatise on world politics. It’s a treat, and a rare one and McPhee is most certainly a writer to keep watching.

No Ordinary Matter by Jenny McPhee
Free Press
ISBN 0743260724
259 pages