The Big Love
By Sarah Dunn (Little, Brown, $23.95)
If I tell you right off the bat that Sarah Dunn's first novel is consummate chick lit, I can probably breeze over the plot, right? No sense in rehashing the untimely breakup, the ensuing search for self in the midst of newfound loneliness, the batch of misguided one-night stands, the funny male co-worker-as-red-herring thing, the faint hope that maybe independence itself can be fulfilling, and the inevitable happy ending—complete with requited love. All of that is understood before you open the book—in fact, you can glean most of this from the cover; you don't even need to read the jacket flap. And after all, 'tis the season: Where there are beach bags and summer vacations, there will be formulaic fluff.
The unimportant few variables in chick lit are the characters and the settings. Here, heroine Alison Hopkins is 32, humbly unsure of herself, a seasoned psychotherapy veteran, and a columnist for an alternative weekly paper in Philadelphia. Shades of Sex and the City? Absolutely, only Alison is far less daring than Carrie. Alison's boyfriend, who becomes her ex-boyfriend on the first page, is a thin shell of a man; although she pines for him for most of the book, you won't remember his name or anything about him when Big Love is finished. Nor will you remember much about Alison's friends—the funny one, the stable one, the sassy one— because they're all just weigh stations on our heroine's highway to real, or, as she terms it, "big," love. As for Mr. Big Love, she finds him, "unexpectedly," in the office. It doesn't seem that Dunn—a former Philadelphia alt-weekly columnist and sitcom writer—dug very deep for this stuff.
As for Alison's essential inner hurdle, that thing she must overcome in order to realize big love—well, she was raised evangelical Christian. Today, she doesn't really know what she believes in—apart from love, of course. Plenty of chick-lit chicks are Jewish; so in this sense, there is something slightly unique about Dunn's characterization of Alison. Slightly. At least she didn't take the easiest way out and give her weight issues to surmount.
If you don't mind the formula, Love certainly isn't an awful book. At times, Alison's direct-to-the-reader asides (à la Ferris Bueller) are even endearing. And as a bonus, you could practically read this book with your eyes closed, which makes it all the more appropriate for a poolside snooze. LAURA CASSIDY
Mortification: Writers' Stories of Their Public Shame
Edited by Robin Robertson (Fourth Estate, $17.95)
Adam Thorpe is a respected writer with four poetry collections and several novels to his name. Thing is, he hasn't always been so assured: As a reporter for the Literary Review, Thorpe once tiptoed star-struck into an interview with a Very Important Person, fumbled with an oversized tape recorder, and posed a ridiculous question, only to elicit the response every young interviewer dreads: the incredulous, uncomprehending "What?"
If most of the authors whose sweat-stained confessions make up this anthology have a ball-peen touch with the embarrassments of literary life, a few wags come bearing sledgehammers. Thorpe exits his interview (with poet Joseph Brodsky) shaky but intact, whereas Bernard MacLaverty, staying with a host couple during a book tour, barely escapes with his life, owing to two ill-tempered, incontinent boxers. He recalls: "The dogs seem demented—squirting piss left, right, and center as they race around the landing and hallway, their claws scraping. Every so often throughout the meal, my hand strays down and I immediately sense a wet engulfment. A dog's nose is like a dish of cold snails."
Since Mortification contains around 70 separate anecdotes, its basic premise—writers, even famous ones, are not immune to humiliation—gets old fast. What keeps you reading is the lyrical treatment of revolting subjects, as when poet David Harsent cheerfully details a post-reading bout of vomiting: "There can, I know, be discreet upchucks of the cough-and-gob variety, or even the girlish whisper-and-slip. This is not either of those. . . . No. This is volcanic. This is a fully orchestrated, bass-pedal-active, hog-hollerin', boot-soles-to-bog-bowl, 10-gallon tsunami."
While self-deprecation is the overarching tone of the book, even its browbeaten contributors might concede that writing and touring constitute real work. However rarefied the sorrows collected here might seem to nonwriters, no human being deserves to suffer the fate of The Ice Storm author Rick Moody, who once traveled on tour to a bookstore in Washington, D.C., only to find an audience of three: his mother, a homeless man, and a onetime pothead his brother once knew. As Mortification deftly proves, hitting it big can still make you feel awfully small. NEAL SCHINDLER