May 2009

Kati Nolfi


Alice Fantastic by Maggie Estep

This is a novel in three voices: Alice, her sister Eloise, and their mother Kimberly. They are “the sort of people who have empathy for animals directly proportionate to [their] indifference to human beings.” They have a hardboiled macho toughness, a flinty leave-me-alone American spikiness -- traits that set them up to later become soft and yielding. Kimberly and her daughters rescue and adopt abused and unwanted dogs, seventeen in fact, but also find some accidental human love along the way.

Alice Fantastic is a pleasure, if your idea of pleasure includes scotch, Bach toccatas, manslaughter, and serious family drama. Maggie Estep writes kicky character-defining noirish lines like, “So I gambled. Not many people last more than a few years doing it for a living but I have. Mostly because the thought of doing anything else is unbearable. I would feel like a citizen.” Alice is a professional horseplayer and the most selfish and saltiest of the three, Eloise makes stuffed animals and is clumsy and sensitive, and Kimberly works at a pet food store and is a movie star’s assistant. She is a recovering addict, generous, wacky, enchanted.

The impossible quirks abound. These are privileged and underdrawn yet vivid characters who are transformed by the novel’s end. They suffer from too much money, too much leisure time, too much “I.” There is an old fashioned-glamour of the NYC freakiness, smoking, impulsive sex, satisfaction of pleasure without much shame.

The Hunter family members are seekers, open to change, and flexible about their sexualities -- partners and identities are formed and exchanged. While the intensity of their romances is unrealistic, the fluidity of adult sexualities is honest, progressive and essential to the characters.

Most of the drama is improbable -- how many beautiful klutzes win a $1 million settlement from falling in a New York City manhole and later fall in love and move in with a movie star? -- and can veer into sentimentality, an unfortunate change from the established freedom and coldness. Estep, however, transforms the normally zero time theme of cynicism and death into effervescence.

There is a pastoral quality to the novel. The city breeds self-protection, misanthropy, and isolation, while the escape to Woodstock revivifies commitment, sincerity, connection to humanity and nature. Just like the abused dogs they are so drawn to, our characters are victims of the harsh urban condition that destroys vulnerability, openness, and sweetness with greed, alienation, and betrayal.

Alice Fantastic demonstrates the unavoidability of love and connectedness, at least for the beautiful and charming. Read this book in front of a bowl of spaghetti on a lonely Saturday afternoon or on the crowded subway platform.

Alice Fantastic by Maggie Estep
Akashic Books
ISBN: 193335481X
250 Pages