Summer reads

Chick chat: From a black-humored romantic romp to the tale of a single woman flirting her way around the world, these novels make perfect beach companions.

Published June 2, 2008 10:51AM (EDT)

Salon's staff is recommending summer books you can really sink your teeth into. Last week we featured killer thrillers. In this second installment, we spotlight four novels that loosely fall under the category of chick lit. They range from a black-humored romp about a spurned MBA student seeking romantic revenge to the saga of New England belles living it up in a gothic manse on the Maine coast to a single city girl who sets off on a round-the-world adventure to a funny mother-daughter duo in need of some serious bonding -- and a good bat mitzvah dress.

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"This Is How It Happened (Not a Love Story)" by Jo Barrett

"The problem," confides Madeline, the heroine of Jo Barrett's "This Is How It Happened," "was he was beautiful."

"He" being Carlton Connors, a diabolically attractive Texan who worms his way into Maddy's bed and heart. He's got a perfect body, a Michelangelo face, eyes of "buttered almond," a dimple in the chin … "and when he smiled at me -- that sexy sideways smile -- my thoughts dropped away and everything I was became available to him. He's one of those men I would've jumped in front of a Greyhound bus for."

Sadly for Maddy, Carlton is the bus. Before she knows it, she's doing his MBA classwork for him. ("You're so great with marketing, Maddy.") Then she's handing him her business idea -- Organics 4 Kids -- and letting him install himself as CEO. And then she's howling as he kicks her to the curb.

Oh, we're just getting started on the evil that is Carlton. He sleeps around. He cooks the company's books. He insists on unprotected sex but doesn't tell Maddy he has herpes. He gives her an engagement ring ("Forever, my Juliet") but makes her take it off around his father. He breaks up with her by e-mail. He steals her office furniture and junks her portfolio.

A woman might consider herself lucky to be rid of such a shithead, but Maddy is in no way free. When a friend asks if she's still hung up on Carlton, she answers reasonably: "I'm not hung up. I'm obsessed."

The only thing that keeps her going now is the thought of retribution. She flirts with sending Carlton poisoned brownies -- and only kills a local raccoon. She experiments with carbon monoxide poisoning -- and nearly asphyxiates herself. Finally, using the connections of her ex-con brother, she engages a hit man. Not to inflict bodily harm but to carry out a subtler course of revenge that will pierce her ex down to his black soul.

This comeuppance, it must be said, loses some of its luster because we never actually see it happen, and Barrett has further denatured her wronged-woman fantasy with a rather dim subplot about a shiksa converting to Judaism. And, OK, since I've slapped on my critic's hat, I'll concede that "This Is How It Happened" has some common chick-lit drawbacks: wavering tone, narrative slackness, a counter-feminist insistence on giving every pot its lid.

But Jo Barrett has fulfilled the basic requirements of the author-reader contract. Which is to say you'll want Maddy to get her mojo back, you'll dearly want Carlton to get stuffed, and you'll have a surprisingly relaxed time watching it happen. If Barrett hasn't squeezed her premise for its full black-comedy potential, her milder approach allows her to get at equally dark veins of feeling -- specifically, the ways in which independent women cede their sovereignty to men.

This isn't exactly a new subject, but the details still pack a punch. When Carlton flinches at the prospect of buying tampons for her, Maddy immediately sets about concealing "the cold, grim facts of my womanhood ... I wrapped my used tampons in enough toilet paper to embalm a mummy. I threw them in the outside garbage, so he'd never see them in the bathroom trash bin." She hand-washes her stained panties (but doesn't hang them in the bathroom to dry), and the rest of the time, she's shaving and plucking like a maniac and wearing makeup on Saturday mornings and getting a bikini wax every other week. On and on it goes, a litany of biological self-denial, to which a stupefied male reader can only respond: We are so not worth it. -- Louis Bayard

"Off Season" by Anne Rivers Siddons

Everyone's got their guilty literary pleasures, best enjoyed with a sweating drink next to the body of cool water of your choice. For my mother, it was mystery novels, gobbled like potato chips next to the local pool; for my childhood best friend's mom, it was what she proudly called her "smut" -- Pat Booth books -- which she'd cheerfully throw into the beer cooler when we vacationed on Cape Hatteras. Now that I am a woman like those before me, only three names will ever do: Anne. Rivers. Siddons.

Oh yeah. I don't remember when I first picked up a Siddons novel, but from the moment I found her, it was true, epic-length, page-turning, heart-pounding love.

Siddons, a Southern belle and former journalist from Atlanta who did serious reporting on the civil rights movement in the 1960s (her first novel, "Heartbreak Hotel," was a semi-autobiographical story about her rejection of segregationist Southern values while she was a student at Auburn University), grew up to be a best-selling spinner of summertime yarns.

Most of her 16 novels are lush, multi-generational tales about the pull of family, outsiders who break into closed social circles, about how friendship and romantic love can shatter class barriers. They are about true love and devoted friendship, not to mention betrayal and long-held family secrets, illegitimate children, bad seed offspring, stealthy husband-stealers, murdered babies, ambiguous suicides ...

And it's all set against a backdrop of what could only be called geography porn. With an eye to the summer vacation market, each year Siddons picks an attractive small town or storied city, or untamed wilderness -- the Outer Banks, Charleston, S.C., Georgia, Tennessee, New England -- and fills it with a cast of eccentrics who play out long-simmering family feuds and break away from oppressive traditions in broad rambling houses with wide porches and rickety floors and claw-footed bathtubs, where young lovers couple out of the earshot of sleeping harridan matriarchs downstairs.

My favorite Siddons work, by far, is 1992's masterpiece, "Colony," about a cluster of summer houses on the Maine coast where three generations of steely women fight to tame the wildness of the jagged rocks and frigid waters while ensuring the continuation of their utterly gothic family.

Oh, "Colony"! I may have read it first in high school, when I was transported by its vision of the sharp, pure, piney New England coast. Imagine my surprise, in my mid-20s, when I found myself in a car with an ex-boyfriend, pulling into a rental house in an old vacation colony exactly like the one Siddons so vividly brought to life. Imagine my further surprise when, on my morning walk the next day, I discovered the sign 30 yards down the road; "Siddons," it said. This was where Siddons summered. We had accidentally rented one of the very houses she only partially disguised in "Colony. "

So imagine my thrill upon learning that Siddons' 2008 publication, "Off Season," is set (unmistakably) in exactly the same spot on the Maine coast! Alas, it is not a sequel, though the action takes place in fictional Carter's Cove, which Siddons tells readers is just next to Retreat Colony. There are other echoes -- the ospreys that were chased away by unhappy teenagers in "Colony" have returned, and Potters and Constables still populate the regattas and chowder dinners, though not, sigh, the same Potters and Constables.

The great news is that "Off Season" is exactly like "Colony," except that it's about (slightly) different characters! There's the house, "a jumble of wings and ells and porches and terraces that looked crumpled and thrown down as from a giant's hand. But somehow it was not awkward." No, indeed. The house at the center of "Off Season" is as elemental as the salt bite of the sea or the soft pine needles that pad the Maine earth.

In it lives Lilly Constable, 11 years old and caught between the tomboy bike-riding and game-playing of childhood and the inflamed passions of first love. Siddons is full of wisdom about these transformative years, and in her florid prose, there are playful shadows of what is to come: "A child's heart and mind are not yet deep and dark enough to hold secrets," she writes, portentously. Yeah, right, they're not!

"Off Season" is full of old family resentments, forbidden love affairs, long-held secrets of identity and ethnicity. Plus! Foggy sailboat accidents and chilly New England bitches who steal your men and steely widows and celebrations of the loamy earth and the summer solstice. I really can't tell you anything more about it lest I spoil some of the hairpin plot twists that, admittedly, you may see coming a mile away (for instance, when a stunningly beautiful orphaned girl with shimmering dimples is described as drawing attention "like a cobra"? She's bad news.) But to sum up: "Off Season" rocks. Enjoy it with a cocktail on the porch of your local yacht club. -- Rebecca Traister

"How to Be Single" by Liz Tuccillo

The other day on the elevator, a man pointed to the book in my hand. "'How to Be Single'?" he said, raising his eyebrows. "Who needs a guidebook for that?"

Yes, fair enough. Singlehood is not something to which most of us aspire. It's not as if I was carrying a book that appeared to offer sexy advice -- "How to Be Filthy Rich," say, or "How to Insult People's Reading Choices on Elevators." No, singlehood is something that most of us, at least at a certain age, do not actively pursue. It is something that befalls us -- like jury duty, or an industrial accident. At least, that's how it feels some days. And that's how it feels for the female protagonists of Liz Tuccillo's debut novel, a group of smart, successful single women in their late 30s, living in New York.

If that premise rings a bell, maybe there's a reason: Tuccillo was a head writer and executive story editor for "Sex and the City," and her dialogue bears some of the show's hallmarks -- tart and briskly paced and occasionally sappy. She pays little mind to such niggling details as, say, bank accounts or the demands of a job. The characters seem less like real girlfriends than cards in a deck, astrological signs, and yet they still manage to be affecting and tender. "How to Be Single" has a twist, though, on the Big Apple rom-com -- it takes the girl out of the city and sends her all over the world.

Protagonist Julie Jenson is a 38-year-old book publicist who hasn't had a serious relationship in years. After one disastrous girls' night out -- which involves cringe-inducing table dances and regurgitated chicken wings -- she decides to write a self-help book about single women all over the world. OK, whatever, it's fiction, and somehow this happens. (By the way, Tuccillo is half the team responsible, along with Greg Behrendt, for the self-help juggernaut that was "He's Just Not That Into You.")

While her friends stay in Manhattan, wrestling with a sampler plate of dramas -- divorce, artificial insemination, illness -- Julie jets off to Paris, to Rome, to Brazil, to China, to Australia, to Bali, dropping the occasional anthropological insight about romance outside the U.S. She's not exactly Margaret Mead ("The men in Rio suck"), and those looking for more depth in their female enlightenment might fare better with "Eat, Pray, Love." This is jauntier, frothier, the cultural equivalent of "The Amazing Race." It's chick lit with exotic set changes. Of course, a romance is brewing -- a sophisticated Frenchman with an open marriage, about whom Julie obsesses while she dots the globe. In fact, Julie actually gleans very little from the women she meets, so absorbed is she in her own whiny melodrama. Hmm, fascinating about those arranged marriages, but why hasn't he called me back yet?

And this becomes part of the point. Like many single women of a certain age, the characters are so wrapped up in their own self-pity -- envying happy couples, sniffling in their beds, bemoaning the fact that their lives did not turn out as they had planned (as though anyone's does!) -- that they have committed themselves indeed. Not to men, but to their own misery. How to be single? Well, perhaps it's not something the characters aspire to, but it is eventually something they can aspire to enjoy. -- Sarah Hepola

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"Certain Girls" by Jennifer Weiner

Some people find it relaxing to read about perfect people with perfect lives, but most of us, we like our human beings with a side order of mess and confusion. Jennifer Weiner is mistress of a strain of chick lit -- and you know it's chick lit when the cover is a sickly shade of pink and the woman on the cover is wearing red shoes -- in which the characters are flawed, and the pursuit of romance is overshadowed by female bonding. In Weiner's world, overweight, accomplished, self-deprecatingly witty heroines prevail; men barely cast a shadow.

"Certain Girls" picks up where Weiner's best-selling debut novel, "Good in Bed," left off. That book chronicled 20-something reporter Cannie Shapiro's personal travails: her crummy boyfriend, her lesbian mom, her unexpected pregnancy. Thirteen years later, Cannie is a published author (her autobiographical novel "Big Girls Don't Cry" was a massive success) with a new husband who is pressuring her to have another child and a 13-year old daughter, Joy, who is suddenly drifting away from her mother into her own adolescent orbit. When Joy stumbles upon her mom's book (including the bit about how the not-so-fictional male protagonist -- father of the not-so-fictional baby -- "had a penis that looked like a malnourished gherkin") she becomes fixated on finding out the gory details of her parents' past.

Cannie and Joy share narrator duties in "Certain Girls" -- a kind of mother-daughter shootout. Joy envies kids whose mothers neglect them; she doesn't exactly appreciate Cannie's overanxious parenting or heavy-handed insistence that she should be herself -- as long as that self matches her mom's expectations. "My mother believes I should embrace my natural beauty," Joy complains, which means she is "the only girl in the world who has to hide her straightening iron under her bed like it's a dirty magazine or a gun."

Weiner has always been a lively writer, and her characters brim with sharp humor and tenderness for each other, even if they're not as self-aware as one might expect from such smart creatures. Joy has her rebellious moments, but it is always her mom who steals the show, quipping her way through difficult moments. Her exploration of the possibility of a surrogate pregnancy (she is unable to carry another baby herself) turns into a laugh fest rather than a crisis. Surrounded by a passel of knocked-up women at the doctor's office, she asks her best friend, "Do you think they're shills? ... If I were a reproductive endocrinologist trying to pique the curiosity and pry open the checkbooks of over-forty hopefuls, I'd stock my waiting room with expectant ladies."

Still, no flashy reproductive endocrinologist is going to put anything over on Cannie. Fiercely independent, she describes herself "as possibly the only woman alive who's read Erica Jong's memoirs as both cautionary tales and financial planning primers," believing "the path to lifelong love is paved with separate checking accounts." Which is why it's not so surprising that her husband, Peter, adoring and kind as he is, plays a very minor role in this book. It's all about a mother and daughter and the havoc that Joy's growing need for independence is wreaking on their symbiotic unit. When she sees her daughter dressed in a slinky gown for her bat mitzvah, Cannie thinks, "Your work here is done, the dress said. Too bad, so sad, don't let the door hit your ass on the way out." Weiner has chosen smartass amusement over depth every time -- but that's what makes "Certain Girls" an imperfectly perfect summer read. -- Joy Press

By Salon Staff

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