Monday, April 4, 2011

Review: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough by Ruth Pennebaker

Reviewed by Connie

Published: 2011

It's about: Three generations of women, all a little cooky, all a little bitter, all a little angry, and all a little funny (though some more than others) are forced under one roof while they deal with high school, divorce, and widowhood. You've got Caroline, the 15-year-old girl who's angry all the time, has no friends, pretend texts instead of listening to her mother, and dyes her hair hot pink while smoking pot for the first time. Then, we've got her mother, Joanie your almost-50, recent divorcee who attends support groups, has sworn off sex, and throws plates when she's angry. But this picture would be incomplete, not to mention melodramatic and boring, without Ivy, your racist, shop-lifting, "this generation-has-got-it-all-wrong" grandma (I kept picturing Betty White playing her) who keeps trying to bring her granddaughter to Jesus because she's convinced she is (1) anorexic and (2) in a gang.

I thought: Reading this book felt very much like watching an indie movie of one of those quirky, dysfunctional families that are so common in film festival dramadies (think Little Miss Sunshine here). Though the writing for the most part is mediocre, what it lacks in prose, it makes up for in hilarious situational comedy (most of it involving Grandma).

Though this reads like a just-for-fun novel, it tackles a number of universal themes, without feeling too contrived: divorce, agism, racism, mother-daughter relationships, marriage and love, the stages of life, technology in modern society, even illegal immigration.

My greatest concern about this book is that it is so current, I fear much of its relevance is fleeting. Its juxtaposition of three generations (Great Depression baby, Baby Boomer, Generation Y) is entertaining and rings true, but I wonder how readers forty years from now will relate. A good portion of the humor depends on these specific generational differences, as well -- such as the humor of Grandma being proud of "Goggling" things on the internet. I feel a little better about the book when I think of Pennebraker like a Monet -- no, I don't mean she's really ugly if you get up close, I mean she's like an impressionist painter, sitting at her easel (computer), wielding her paintbrush (pen), capturing a moment of light hitting water (Google hitting the internet browser) before it's gone for good.

Verdict: Stick it on the shelf, though it may not stay there

Reading Recommendations: Relax and enjoy this one. I had fun picturing the movie they would make out of it.

Warnings: some references to sex, occasional language, teen drug use

Favorite excerpts:
"Joanie could see Caroline in the rear view mirror, her hot-pink hair like a blazing neon sign, a big, loopy grin on her face. She remembered bringing Caroline home from the hospital when she was a little baby. Then, you worried about diapers and getting enough sleep and whether you were going to be a decent mother and what your baby would be when she grew up. Somehow, it never occurred to you she'd turn out to be a cranky adolescent with hair the color of psychedelic cotton candy."

"The concrete was cold and hard, but it was growing a little warmer the longer she lay there. Maybe, hopefully, Caroline had a concussion. Even better, maybe she would develop amnesia. Soon, very soon, it would set in. She couldn't wait to forget.
'Are you all right?'
"It was another male voice, somehow familiar. Caroline kept her eyes pasted shut and pretended to be unconscious. Maybe he, whoever he was, would leave. Only a very cruel and depraved person would bend over a girl who had just crashed on the concrete floor and ruined her whole shitty life. Either that or some kind of predatory religious nut wanted to save her for Jesus. If the meek inherited the earth, the clumsy and unpopular would probably get the moon or an asteroid. Great."

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review