July 2006

Mariya Strauss

fiction

Little Beauties by Kim Addonizio

You know what? Maybe it’s me. Full disclosure: I am six months pregnant. It’s possible that my expectations (ha!) of a story about a teen mom, a newborn baby, and a newly single, troubled thirtysomething chick were a little heavy for a beach book. Because I’m currently preoccupied with the future, I might have brought some extra hopefulness to the read; I wanted pretty badly to be led away and twirled along by the magical realism of a newborn’s point of view. At least, based on my experience of other “chick lit” novels of summers past, I could reasonably expect to be absorbed in the characters. But Kim Addonizio manages to flatten the brains of her characters into gray, two-dimensional pancakes. No juicy plot points or deepening of character traits are bestowed upon me for tolerating passages like this one:

Jamie watches the oil pumps go up and down, like mechanical chickens pecking for seed, like mechanical penises entering robot vaginas in a porn video. She wonders if robot porn exists; there seems to be a fetish for everything on earth. Kevin had shown her a catalogue of magazines and videos for pee freaks.

This passage connects to nothing else in the book. I read it as either a failed attempt to give dimension to Jamie and Kevin’s relationship, or as a cynically placed, mildly titillating sexual reference.

I don’t get it. All the elements are there for an intriguing, meaty novel: a volatile and self-destructive mental illness resurfacing in the main narrator, making her potentially unreliable; a teenager with a belly about to pop and an uncertain future; both characters’ barbed entanglements with their own mothers; and an unborn baby who narrates some of the chapters. What’s more, the author is an award-winning poet in her other literary life; this foray into novel writing could both put her mastery of language on display and propel her into the coveted chick lit marketplace with the force of a... who’s another poet-turned-novelist who hit it big in this genre? I can’t think of any, actually.

Perhaps that’s the problem here. Addonizio is capable of some luminous phrasing: “Birkenstocks. I take a step back. Her toenails are about six inches long and painted metallic green. They look like the thin, elegant claws of an exotic animal.” But phrases and fragments of description are not so easy to brick lay into a novel.

This book has forced me to re-think what it is about a good novel that makes it enjoyable: to suit me, it should take me on an adventure grounded in a harmonious blend of fantasy and truth. Some mysterious backstory is okay as scaffolding, but not vague and repetitive references to alternate universes which are never fleshed out into anything embodied in the present time in which the story takes place. The baby narrator, Stella, continually refers to a time-space reference frame known as The Before, which -- as near as I can gather -- is a light-filled place above everybody’s heads where babies hang out and choose their moms. Not only does this concept not interest me, I find it a little problematic -- its repeated appearance in the book reveals, I think, a clear yet unexamined anti-adoption bias in the author. To wit: if babies choose their moms before they are even conceived, then giving the baby up for adoption is a violation of that choice, and the lightness and purity of The Before described in the book seem engineered to make the mom’s choice appear shabby, selfish, and cruel by comparison. I don’t know what issues Addonizio has personally with adoption, but I prefer my fiction to be thinly-veiled-sermon-free.

The most interesting parts of this book are the protagonist’s descriptions of the private hell of obsessive-compulsive disorder. We don’t often get to see that from a woman’s perspective: the interconnected web of contamination she alone can see beneath all human interactions. A better writer would have made this into a portal through which we might see and interpret the story’s action. The baby’s birth, the teen mom’s struggle to decide what to do with the baby, the protagonist’s own mother’s alcoholism -- all these story elements could darken interestingly under the shadow of OCD, or they could swirl together into a final showdown in which the OCD is conquered once and for all... but I’m just riffing.

It’s not my book. In reality, the plot shudders under the weight of awkwardly rendered points of view (I found myself snorting back laughter at the broad-stroke, almost cartoonish stylings of the baby’s perspective) and a pile of baggage belonging loosely to the characters, but which I suspect is really indicative of something the author needs to get off her chest (see note above on sermonizing). In the end, the plot simply disintegrates, leaving pieces I feel too detached and unmotivated to pick up myself. It’s summer, for crying out loud. If I’m reading for pleasure, I just don’t want to work that hard.

Little Beauties by Kim Addonizio
Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 0743271831
242 pages