This Week's Reads

Laura Moriarty, Carolyn Parkhurst, Kavita Daswani, and Leslie Epstein.

THE CENTER OF EVERYTHING By Laura Moriarty (Hyperion, $22.95) Kansas is a loaded signifier. In this Midwestern coming-of-age tale of Evelyn Bucknow, who grows from about 10 to 18 during the Reagan-Bush '80s, at least one Wizard of Oz reference is a given. Like Dorothy, however, Evelyn has only the dimmest notions of a world beyond Kansas or her troubled family. Her mother, Tina, was knocked up as a teen and has been rejected by her Bible-thumping father. Evelyn's own father left before her birth. This homely, four-eyed, serious young girl is not about to burst into songthere is no rainbow for her. Only the stars suggest a cosmic scheme more fair and forgiving than the welfare system that demeans Tina and the peer-group pressures that oppress Evelyn. "I am the supporting actress, the supportive friend," Evelyn says of a high-school pal, a vapid beauty who naturally wins the heart of Evelyn's own crush-since-childhood. A former social worker who found inspiration for Evelyn among her hard-luck clients, debut novelist Laura Moriarty labors under the limited first-person narration of her heroine. She lacks the literary gift of, say, Ann Cummins (whose Red Ant House was reviewed here last week) for making children wise but not too wise in their observations. Evelyn is a good observer, but not a good character. As a result, Everything isn't very interesting until Evelyn hits adolescence late in the book and gains a voice. Even then, the novel fails to develop beyond a mundane, overfamiliar depiction of family conflict and fundamentalist bullying. (An evolution-versus-creationism debate rocks Evelyn's high school.) When Evelyn, then her mother, both take jobs at McDonald's, I wanted to know more about this sub-blue-collar class of flyover people, the fry chefs with more drama in their lives than their smug patrons could ever imagine. But Moriarty doesn't burrow any deeper into the world of deep fryers, Section 8 housing, and broken-down cars that require both hands to shift gears. Everything reads like a slightly upmarket young-adult novel with requisite feuds, friendships, and fallings-out: more Obstacles to Overcome for Evelyn. And the language is mostly as dull and flat as, well, Kansas. But I'm glad to hear that Moriarty is already working on her second novel, because she's capable of getting a few sentences right. "She's like a person without hands getting flowers," says Evelyn of her mother's reaction to unaccustomed praise from a visitor. Even in the flattest, most featureless prairie, a few bright flowers grow. BRIAN MILLER Laura Moriarty will read at Elliott Bay Book Co. (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 7:30 p.m. Wed., July 16. THE DOGS OF BABEL By Carolyn Parkhurst (Little Brown, $21.95) I must have gone back and forth on Dogs about 10 times before I even got to the fifth page. It's a story about a grieving young widower and his dogwho happens to be the only witness to the death of the man's wife. I just wasn't crazy about reading how this humble Everyman solves a possible murder (you're led to believe early on that his wife didn't just accidentally fall). And the premise that the dog might actually be capable of "telling" the widower, Paul Iverson, what happened struck me as outlandish. So I braced myself for a schlocky, Lassie-style plot from first-time novelist Carolyn Parkhurst. Then again, I often find myself engaging my cats in conversations about what to have for dinner, and I was truly fascinated when my boyfriend's mom recently told me about taking her hyperactive Lab to the doggie psychiatrist. And Parkhurst lends to the initial credibility of Iverson's quest by having hima professor of linguisticsponder historical examples of animal speech, which turn out to be quite fascinating. Unfortunately, Dogs isn't smart enough to support its audacious beginning. Iverson jumps through all manner of hoops in hopes that he'll get Lorelei, the Rhodesian Ridgeback, to talk, but the dog remains tight-lipped. When he finally ventures into the seedy underworld of illegal palate-reshaping veterinary science, Dogs' tone becomes almost surreal, if not downright silly. Parkhurst never made me care about boring old Iverson anyway, and his artist wife is rendered as such an opaque figure (Parkhurst characterizes her as a mask maker, for crying out loud) that I almost couldn't care about heror her death. Too bad Oliver Sachs didn't write this one; through his scholarly but entertaining pen, I might have actually learned how to communicate with my cats. But if anything should happen to me, you know who to ask. LAURA CASSIDY Carolyn Parkhurst will read at Elliott Bay Book Co. (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 7:30 p.m. Wed., July 16. FOR MATRIMONIAL PURPOSES By Kavita Daswani (Putnam, $23.95) Here's the ultimate beach read for those summer days when you desire more substance than a stack of fashion mags but less strain than, say, Alice Sebold. I blew through Purposes in a day, on a blanket under the sun, so enthralled that a friend had to remind me to stop for lunch. I then shoveled down my food in minutes, anxious to return to Kavita Daswani's funny, fresh debut novel. The Bombay-born, Hong Kong-raised author is now an L.A. fashion correspondent, but fashion plays only a minor role in Purposes. The real subject is marriage. And in upper-middle-class Bombay, where the book begins, such unions are still arranged by parents. Seriously. When a young woman becomes ripe for wifedom round about age 20, astrologers, psychics, and family friends are consulted. Formal date requests are made with the desirable candidates' own parents. Family members are dragged along on already stressful enough first meetings. Then, if all goes well, marriage proposals are extended by the elders. But try as they might, Anju's parents just can't get her hitched. She's considered doomed by 23 and, by 28, an old maid. Tired of disgracing her family and losing her friends to coupledom, Anju heads for Manhattan to study business. She has the time of her life in the big city, but her new cosmopolitan lifestyle makes finding a traditional Indian husband even more difficulther independence seems unattractive to potential mates. Torn between satisfying her parents, her own traditional cultural beliefs, and the infinitely more lax American courtship rituals, Anju tries to balance the new world with the old. Daswani has created a wry, timely, sympathetic story in Purposes. It's Sex and the City where the sex is replaced with saris and samosas. KATIE MILLBAUER Kavita Daswani will read at Elliott Bay Book Co. (101 S. Main St., 206-624-6600), 7:30 p.m. Fri., July 18. SAN REMO DRIVE By Leslie Epstein (Handsel Books, $24) The haunted, haunting Drive is more than "a novel from memory" (its subtitle), it's also a mirror trick. Its first-person narrator, hugely successful painter Richard Jacobi, is the son of a successful screenwriter and producer; author Leslie Epstein is the son of Philip G. Epstein, who, with his twin, Julius, formed the irreverent, unstoppable screenwriting team behind Casablanca, Mr. Skeffington, and more. The slim, densely packed novel opens with four viewsseparate short stories, almostof Richard's adolescence in the '40s and '50s. He and his emotionally fragile younger brother, Barton, thread their way through insider-Hollywood before and in the wake of the devastating House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. As smoothly as a cardsharp riffling a deck, Epstein pulls out one memory, examines it, then offers the events that fed that moment. Thus we meet Lotte, Richard's unpredictable force-of-nature mother, as a (recent) widow being courted by the smarmy, self-deprecating René. (Only later will we see her as the wife of a skilled producer during Hollywood's Golden Age.) Two moments from these early-period stories stand out. In their vast house on Pacific Palisades' San Remo Drive, the boys flip the channels on their new Zenith to find Gorgeous George stomping Wild Red Berry into the canvas, then their father, Norman, verbally flipping off the HUAC in Washington, D.C. Although his temerity is fatal to Norman, it is Lotte and the boys who suffer its effects the longest, beginning with the forced sale of their house during the blacklist. Second, in "Negroes," set just before the 1948 elections, Richard joins two black laborers tunneling under his house to hook up new plumbing. Full of liberal fervor, he then invites the men to cool off with a swim in the pool. The sustained, hypnotic interplay among the men, his mother, and their black housekeepers may contain the book's most piercing insights, although it's a hard choice. In the novel's shorter second section, set between 2000 and 2001, adult Richard and his spiky, real-estate agent wife, Marcia, reclaim San Remo Drive, renovating it to hold their adopted Navajo twin sons. (Again, twins.) Their train wreck of a marriage isn't helped when Marcia discovers that Richard hasn't abandoned his former muse, model, and mistress on the eve of his show at the Paris Jeu de Paume. As Epstein takes this final look at the Jacobi family, he sketches, as deftly as his hero, the complexities of trying to live a decent life in today's climate, with yesterday's history as a guide. SHEILA BENSON

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