Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Egyptologist, by Arthur Phillips

The follow-up to his debut "Prague," this book has the same witty writing, with a lot more plot. There is a degree to which Philips condescends to his characters, rather smugly aware that what they reveal much more about themselves than they realize. That's part of the wit, but also part of the distance that made "Prague" unpleasant to read. In this case, the narrators are already distanced by time, writing in 1922 and 1954, so the distancing is less offputting.

Ralph M. Trilipush is a newly financed Egyptologist, an adjunct instructor at Harvard who has secured private financing from a group of Boston businessmen to seek for the semi-mythical 13th Dynasty pharoah Atum-Hadu (Atum-is-Aroused). He has made a small reputation for himself by translating a scrap of papyrus--two earlier scraps had already been translated by a Victorian and a Frenchman. Tirlipush's translation, however, tends toward the pornographic, and was published by something called "Collins Amorous Literature," although he has hopes for a new edition to be released by Harvard after he returns with proof of his find.

Trilipush is also engaged to Margaret Finneran, a Boston jazz baby whose father is the lead investor in this excavation. As the book starts, he is writing a letter to her, forwarding his excavation records, asking her to edit and publish his findings, as he fears he is going to be murdered by his enemies. The bulk of the book consists of his journal entries from October through December 1922, including writings about his past, messages to Margaret, theorizing about his Pharoah's life and death and tomb.

A second narrative intertwines the journal--an Australian detective named Farrell who is set to find the illegitimate off-spring of a dying English peer in order to deliver an inheritence. The particular Australian heir is named Paul Caldwell, who was last traceable to the Australian forces in Egypt, who disappeared with an English officer named Marlowe, the day after Armistice, November 1918. Their identity tags and a gun were found not far from the Valley of the Kings, near where the Marlowe had found the scrap of papyrus several years earlier. Ferrell becomes convinced that Trilipush murdered the two officers, and follows him to Boston. Ferrell arrives just after Trilipush left for Egypt, but stays in Boston to squire Margaret Finneran around.

Ferrell's narrative is written as a series of letters in 1954 to a nephew of Margaret's who is looking for family history. It is clear that Ferrell himself is deeply deluded about his project--he imagines that this nephew is going to get this detective story published, and even made into a movie. He begins to insert the nephew as a character in his narrative. It is also soon clear that Ferrell is blinded by his own class resentment toward the English, which he exorcises by insisting that they are all homosexuals. He becomes convinced that Trilipush is using Margaret for her money, and that he plans to bilk her father and then drop her--while he stands ready to "catch her as she is dropped." His own infatuation for Margaret clouds his judgment in ways he does not see.

The excavation is just outside the Valley of the Kings, where Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamen's tomb in November of 1922. Trilipush is seriously overconfident and underfunded, and unaware. He books luxurious rooms in Cairo, bespeaks 10 suits, merrily purchases supplies, but has no concession--no permission to dig in Thebes. What little response he gets from the Department of Antiquities indicates that the concession for the area is already allotted, but they will contact him back home in America when something becomes available.
So, of course, he rents a villa in Luxor, commissions a painting of himself for the Explorers' Club, and heads south.

Of course, the boy is soon played--he hires a thug as his foreman, who does just enough work to find a tomb, then more of less smashes his way through what turns out to be an elaborate, but empty structure. Trilipush is injured in the process, as a large doorway stone falls on his foot. He binds it up and keeps working, although once his workers are convinced there is no treasure, they leave him to go work for Carter, who has found treasure and pays well.

Meanwhile, Trilipush's sponsors refuse to send him the promised money. This is due to the appearance of Ferrell, on the trail of who he supposes to be Paul Caldwell's murderer. Ferrell has turned up the interesting facts that there is no record of a Ralph M. Trilipush at Oxford, nor in the British Army. He half convinces CC Finneran that Trilipush is conning him out of his money and there is no treasure; or that there is a treasure, but Trilipush is going to take it all himself. Instead of pursuing Trilipush, he remains in Boston, and only returns to his "case" when Finneran flees to Egypt to learn the truth.

Carter's discovery of Tut's tomb has raised Finneran's hopes; he owes large sums of money at punitive interest rates to the other co-investors, who fear that Finneran has taken their shares as well, and hire Ferrell to find both Finneran and Trilipush.

Trilipush has reached the end of his money, has been evicted from his villa (as the demand for living space near Tut's tomb has raised his rent beyond what was budgeted, even if he had gotten his promised financing), and is increasingly pained and delirious from the injury to his foot. And here come the spoilers.

His belief in the existence of Amut-Hadu consumes him, and he was truly wagered everything on the successful (and quick!) outcome of this expedition. Repeatedly, we are told that Howard Carter looked for six years before finding Tut's tomb--rather than taking that as a warning that he might not find anything himself, Trilipush concludes Carter is washed up and a failure. His increasing need to convince himself that he has found Amut-Hadu's tomb coupled with his own feverish illness, leads him to conflate his own history with that of the pharoah's, and he ends up painting the chambers of the bare tomb with scenes and hieroglyphs that "prove" the pharoah's existence.

When Finneran shows up at the tomb, unannounced and angry, Trilipush defends himself and then kills Finneran, then does his best to mummify the man, while confusing him with Amut-Hadu's traitorous minister. As the novel winds to its end, Trilipush has forgotten that the flimsy door that leads to the tomb was his replacement for the massive stone that he smashed to keep the location hidden. He fails to recall that the bloody footprints in the second chamber are his own from when the third door fell on his foot--and he mistakes that door for a dais. He puts his own tattered clothing, cane, and writing materials into the "storerooms." He wraps himself in sheets from his Cairo hotel, leaving himself in the final chamber as he finally conflates himself with his sought-for Pharoah.

Meanwhile, with typical blindness, Ferrell arrives in Luxor, confronts Trilipush, and gets nowhere. Trilipush assures the detective that Finneran and he will be going back to Cairo in two days, Ferrell waits for them at the boat. When neither appears, Ferrell alerts the Egyptian police, who arrest the thug/former foreman for the murder of both men.

In an unmarked coda to these narratives, Harvard sends Trilipush's accumulated mail to Margaret. In the stack is a letter from Marlowe's Oxford friend, which clears up the rest of the story. "Ralph M. Trilipush" is an invented character, used by Marlowe and his homosexual friends to lull worried parents into believing that their sons had left behind their "bad influences" and had gone straight. Thus, no record of any such character at Oxford, although underclassmen recognized the name, even as late as 1922.

Paul Caldwell taught himself as much about Egyptology as he could in Australia, then attached himself to Marlowe while stationed in Egypt, and blackmailed Marlowe into teaching him more. At the end of the war, Marlowe took Caldwell out beyond the Valley of the Kings, intending to kill the inconvenient young man, but was killed himself. Caldwell left behind their identity tags, and then reinvented himself as the fictional Trilipush.

Of course, we've seen this coming for quite a while, nearly as early as when Ferrell decides that Trilipush is a murderer, we've been expecting the identity switch. I will confess, I hadn't predicted the "Bunbury" aspect of Trilibush. (From "The Importance of Being Earnest"--characters trying to evade unpleasant social obligations claim they have to go visit their ailing (fictional) friend Bunbury.) At least one reviewer has referred to this as a "Talented Mr. Ripley" twist, which is also true.

The decoration of the tomb is well done, and Phillips has done a fine job of giving us Caldwell's history so we see his illustration of Amut-Hadu's life as really his own. The items he describes as having been placed in the tomb were also shown to us earlier. I saw this done many years ago by Robertson Davies in "What's Bred In The Bone" in which an art forger convincingly creates a Bosch-like work from his own history. It's quite possible Phillips was aware of this, as the wealthy man who sends Ferrell on the quest to find Paul Caldwell is also named "Davies."

Among the several interesting themes throughout the book is the question of immortality. How does one assure one's own immortality? Egyptian kings preserved their bodies, as well as their deeds and names in their tombs. The destruction of a name and a heart destroyed one's ability to live in the afterworld. Trilipush ponders what he calls the "Tomb Paradox." How do you create a tomb that won't be robbed and destroyed? How do you assure your name lives on after you? In his fevered final hours, he imagines that Amut-Hadu, faced with the invasion of the Hyksos, walked alone into the desert, sealed himself inside his tomb, thus assuring that the knowledge of its existence died with him.

The first half of this book is too long by about half; we get the joke, we get the tee up. We don't need quite as much time spent on Margaret and her recreational opium use, or Ferrell's moping around in Boston. Trilipush's journal is also too slow to get anywhere in the first half of the book. Again, we get the joke--let's get on with the excavation.

But the book is well done, and worth the read. It's good practice in reading behind the words, in trying to see what it is that the narrators don't realize they are telling us. Definitely worth the time.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Bleak House, by Charles Dickens

I picked this up for $5 from during a sale they had, and I had NO idea how big this really was! I think it has turned out to be something like 31 hours of narration, which is practically a lifetime in comparison to most audio books. So I guess it was about the biggest bargain I have ever found in audio books, and that includes the ones from the library!

Where does one start with Bleak House? I have read three or four of Dickens' shorter novels, but never this one, which showed up on one of those questionable lists of 100 Books You Should Have Read But Probably Didn't. Add to that the fact that as a lawyer, I was ethically obligated to read Dickens' polemic against the English court system, and I felt I had to wade in.

First off, although Bleak House is famous for the unending lawsuit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, the case itself plays very little part in the bulk of the novel. Instead, the suit serves as the thread which connects all the characters from all different classes of society, allowing Dickens to comment on everyone from country gentry all the way down to the starving street orphans, while showing how they are interconnected. Because make no mistake, Dickens' main topic is not about the injustice of a Chancery case as much as it is the injustice of poverty and the persistent failure of England to care for its own.

The central figure of this novel is Esther Summerson, who narrates most of the action of the book. Her narrative is interleaved with an omniscient third person narrator, whose voice is quite arch and satiric. Esther is the sort of naive narrator who stands in for the reader, watching as the plot unfolds without fully comprehending all the elements at work. Esther is also a model Victorian woman, cheerful, kind, uncomplaining, generous, and loving. While modern readers will doubtless find her unbelievable, I see her as Dickens' demonstration of the Ideal Woman: she constantly puts others' needs ahead of her own, she strictly forbids herself to be mournful over things like her disfigurement by smallpox, or her loss of her love. The other ingenue of the book, Ada Clare, is similarly idealized, to the point where her presence in the book is fairly negligible.

Dickens' has been disparaged for his apparent inability to write believable women--Lucy from "A Tale of Two Cities" is almost farcical in her passivity. Esther comes off better than that, because we see so much through her narrative, and she is given the opportunity to be honest even when it is not flattering. Ada is pure Lucy, a lovely young girl who marries improvidently but for the best of intentions, and while it is her husband who actually dies, Ada is possibly even more the victim than he is.

Ada and her cousin, Richard Carstone, begin the book as wards of Chancery, as they are apparently orphans who stand to inherit under the wills of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. As far as I know, there is no backstory to these two--they do not exist until they burst onto the scene nearly as adults. Their cousin John Jarndyce, has petitioned the court to have them live with him, and he simultaneously takes on Esther Summerson as his ward and companion for Ada. John Jarndyce has refused to take any interest in the Chancery case, and would withdraw from it if that were possible. He has claims which are reportedly contrary to the claims of Ada and Richard, but he takes them into his home in order to counteract the effects of the suit.

Dickens wrote Bleak House as a serial which ran for some 18 months, and the plot is rather a soap opera as a result. Held together by the mechanism of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, the narrative wanders widely. The highest ranking characters are Sir Leicester and Lady Honoria Dedlock, landed gentry from Lincolnshire. Lady Dedlock is at the height of the fashionable world, and bored to death with it. Oddly, Sir Leicester's attorney, the malevolent Tulkinghorn, turns up with some documents for them to review in the Jarndyce case. Lady Dedlock notices a certain distinctive handwriting on one of the documents and asks who wrote it. (Oh yeah! This was before copy machines!)

Tulkinghorn notices this unusual behavior, and becomes alert to what it might mean. He spends his considerable intellect ferreting out her secret. It was an error on her part to even mention it, because Tulkinghorn is a collector of secrets, and she is not safe, especially if her secret is in conflict with her gusband.

The secret, of course, is that before she married Sir Leicester, Lady Dedlock had a lover and bore a child, who grew up to be Esther Summerson. The handwriting was of Captain Hawdon, Esther's father, who is found dead early in the book. At that point he was a poor opium addict who went by the name "Nemo," which is Latin for "nobody."

Nemo's milieu introduces a number of other characters: Mr. Krook, his landlord; Miss Flite, the other roomer and a suitor in Chancery (but apparently not in Jarndyce); Jo, the ragamuffin boy who sweeps; Mr. and Mrs. Snagsby, the legal stationer who hires Nemo and others to make copies of legal documents. So, by the device of a document in the Jarndyce case, we have moved from Lincolnshire to London, from the upper levels of fashionable society, through the mercantile middle class, to the opium addicted dregs.

The more I think about this novel, the more I take issue with the claim that this is a protest against the abuse of Chancery, or the legal system in general. The real issue, addressed over and over again, is the various forms of poverty and need, and how different people respond to it. There is, obviously, the utter indifference of the Chancery Court to the injury it causes to the people trapped in it--Mr. Gridley loses his farm to pay the costs of the adjudication of a will, ends up in prison several times, and ultimately dies as a result of his case. Poor Miss Flite has gone mad waiting for her judgment, and the weak Richard Carstone goes into debt, alientes his family members, and loses his health and life in pursuing Jarndyce and Jarndyce. But this is not the only instance of response to human want and need.

In introducing us to Tom All Alone's--a London street where rickety buildings have been colonized by squatters who then let out rooms to those who are even poorer--Dickens reports that Parliament has discussed its response to the horrible conditions there. However, since no one can agree on what to do, the street and its residents are only "to be saved by someone's theory, but by no one's doing." Even when the buildings start falling and killing the occupants, nothing is done.

In contrast, John Jarndyce learns of Esther Summerson and decides to be her protector, as well as taking in his two young cousins as well as all but supporting the feckless Horace Skimpole. Esther Summerson acts to attend to the needy children of Mrs. Jellyby on the one night she is in their household, and as a result has a life-long connection with Caddy. Esther takes in the ill Jo, and ends up nearly dying herself of smallpox. Her generosity is not rewarded--perhaps as a message that individual charity is not the solution. Her ultimate husband, Alan Woodcourt, attends the sick and dying even when it is clear they can never pay him.

Even the nearly penniless Nemo shared what little he had with Jo, who had even less. The brickmakers' wives, Jenny and Lizzie, also share their burdens with each other and help everyone from the gravely ill Jo to the distracted Lady Dedlock.

On the other hand, we also see the pointlessness of some efforts at charity. For instance, Mrs. Jellyby's obsession with her African mission blinds her to the very real needs of her own children. Mrs. Pardiggle forces her children to contribute to her charities, which they bitterly resent. Furthermore, Mrs. Pardiggle's form of charity is basically a pious bullying, and Dickens shows it to be utterly futile.

What Dickens shows us over and over in Bleak House is the necessity of making human connections, as individuals rather than as moral subjects or unbridgeable social constructs. It is this spectrum of relationship which is the real theme of the book. The various responses run from the cold and brutal inefficiency of the Chancery system (which takes no notice of whether waht it does is right, merely whether it is the system) to the generous and warm-hearted humanity of Esther Summerson.

One last comment: while the characters are often quite stock, I fully enjoyed Inspector Bucket, who was a new form of police officer that I had not previously encountered. He is not fixable as either "good" or "bad." He seems heartless as he forces Jo to "move on" without giving the poor boy any idea as to where he was to move to--but then he makes such a wonderful guest at the Bagnets birthday celebration, without letting on that he was only there to arrest Mr. George--far more humane and subtle than I had expected of him. Further, he is an excellent detective, exonerating Mr. George and finding the true culprit. He operates from extremely sympathetic motives, although his actions sometimes have more serious consequences than he could predict. He is truly an absorbing character.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Spilling Clarence, by Anne Ursu

This was a book club pick that I actually liked! I blame my reader's malaise on winter lasting too long, because it couldn't possibly be the case that I was grumpy and impossible to please, could it? Or maybe all those books I've been trying to read all winter really were that terrible.

What do you think?

Anyway--Spilling Clarence is Ursu's debut novel, and it certainly contains some snappy writing and an interesting and well-executed premise. Small town Clarence is home to a psycho-pharmaceutical company, as well as a well respected university. Due to faulty wiring and an antique microwave oven, a cloud of "deletrium" is released into the air. This mythical chemical is used to ferry the actual medication into the brain--when released alone, it stimulates the town to remember. Everything. Which overwhelms the oldest, who have the most to remember, but even affects the children, who presumably have fewer traumatic memories they are forced to relive.

The main characters are Todd, a graduate student in memory studies, and his fiance Susannah. Susannah's mother has periodic mental breakdowns, and has since Susannah was seven. Todd has brought Susannah to Clarence for the university program, and she is unhappy and at loose ends.

Susannah does volunteer work at the local senior living center, Sunny Shadows, where she meets Madeline Singer, a famous novelist. Madeline is in Clarence for her son, Benjamin -- who is a psychology professor at the college -- and seven (?) year old Sophie. Lizzie, Benjamin's wife and Sophie's mother, died in an auto accident while Ben was driving. This is the memory that lays him low when the deletrium is released--he is also among the last to recover, because he doesn't want to lose his newly vivid memories of his dead wife.

Among the victims is an elderly gentleman named Calvin, who has begun courting Madeline, until the deletrium forces him to remember what he saw in WWII, while liberating Dachau. He collapses into a near coma. At the end of the book, he recovers, but has lost his lighter self. He engages Madeline to record his memories of that time, stalling any possible romance while she works on his oral history.

There are some interesting wrinkles: Ben finds out that one of his "memories" actually happened to someone else, thus demonstrating the unreliability of memory. Todd tries to create a game that demonstrates how memory works, only to conclude that while the game demonstrates one portion of how memory works, there are too many complicating factors that affect whether an incident becomes a memory, and fails to describe how memory fails.

It makes for an interesting thought experiment: how would you live if you literally could not forget anything? My book club meets to discuss this in three more weeks, and I have some high hopes for the conversation.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Snow, by Tracy Lynn

Yet another entry in the burgeoning category of retold fairy tales. This one is aimed at young adult readers, which in reality means about 12 years old: appropriate for the mother-daughter reading group I read it for.

Jessica (Jessica? Are we sure this isn't a book about the 1990s?) is the only child of a Welsh duke, whose mother died in child-birth. The duke's sorrow at losing his wife, only to get a daughter means that Jessica is all but raised by the servants and taught to cook and clean, free to run with the other children on the estate. This lasts until Jessica is about 11, when her father remarries, a coldly beautiful woman who conducts experiments that are part science, part magic. She takes Jessica under her wing, and teaches her the proper behavior of a lady.

On her 14th birthday, the new duchess arranges for a party--not quite a debut, but an introduction of the growing girl to Welsh society. Jessica slips away before the party to see the new puppies born in the barn, and on the way back is accosted and assaulted by a visiting count. Jessica knees the count, which causes the duchess so much embarrassment that Jessica is imprisoned in her room and forced to do chores. Kept indoors, her skin turns pale and her hair turns black, and she gains the nickname "Snow."

The duchess has a violinist, a young Scot named Alan, who is forced to hold the duchess's large mirror and answer all her questions truthfully. He is bound to keep her secrets by a gold chain around his neck, but manages to warn Snow to flee when the duchess's quest for a child leads her to try to regain her youth by eating Snow's heart. Snow flees to London, and Alan follows soon after.

Here is where there is any sort of time frame established for the story. In London the presence of gas lighting, trains, bustles, etc., make clear the time is Victorian. Snow is soon taken in by the Lonely Ones, a group of half-human, half-animals for whom she cooks and cleans. There is a perfunctory discussion of the morality of them stealing, and a brief trip to show Snow the extremes of wealth and poverty in the city.

After a year, the Duchess decides she needs to find Snow, and travels to London and puts about a story that she went mad, but has been successfully treated and is now working on behalf of the poor. Snow buys this story, falls into the Duchess's trap, and is used as a test subject for the Duchess's electric device which is supposed to stop the aging process. She falls into a paralysis as a result, though she is apparently not dead. The Lonely Ones take her home and put her in a china case while they try to find a way to reverse the process.

They find Alan, and with him seek out The Clock-Work Man, a half-machine man who lives in the sewers of London, and has a vague science/magical knowledge that he uses to build a machine to revive Snow. As they are about to leave, a duke and his servant Henry find the Clock-Work Man's home, and so Alan and Raven are "forced" to bring them back to Snow.

The new machine works, and the first thing Snow sees as she wakes is the handsome face of the duke. However, she remembers nothing about her life and is frightened by the Lonely Ones. The duke offers to take her home to Wales, and to protect her from the duchess.

Back in Wales, she still remembers nothing. Her parents throw a masquerade ball, and the Lonely Ones arrive with a potion to restore her memory. Before they give it to her, she remembers, due to the love she has for Raven which breaks the spell. The duchess realizes Snow remembers her treachery, but before she can do any more, the memory spell rebounds onto her, and she becomes old and confused.

In the end, Alan makes clear he loves Snow like a sister, the duke (who was expected to propose to Snow at the ball) accepts her rejection with relief, freeing him to go on more adventures. Snow takes the Lonely Ones and Alan off to explore Europe. The End.

Not a bad book, but rather weak. The book is not really best read as a retelling of Snow White, since the attempts to draw the necessary parallels are rather clumsy. The tale itself is less Victorian or fairy tale, and more steam-punk, especially the faux "experiments" of the duchess and the Clock-Work Man. The fairy tale elements seem more a marketing decision than a literary one.

Jessica/Snow is rather a boring character, the Lonely Ones only slightly interesting but under developed. The most interesting and powerful character is the duchess, but because this is a "fairy tale," the potential for her being a complicated and compelling creature is ignored, and she is flattened into a two-dimensional "evil stepmother."

Lots of potential in the setting, but mostly unrealized. There are some noticeable editing inconsistencies--the duchess's eyes go from dark blue to hazel within a couple of chapters. Snow's hair starts out black, but inexplicably is described as "chestnut hair was growing back black," without any indication it had been cut off either.

The contest between the Clock-Work Man and the pseudo-scientific duchess could have been of great interest--the developing role of science and the morals of experimentation. The duchess's desire for a child could have been developed--why did she want one? For her own sake, for the sake of her husband, because he was looking to find a younger woman to marry for the sake of an heir? (The duchess's name is Anne--Boleyn?) The duchess makes two separate speeches about the limits on women and their perceived worth only as pretty young girls or mothers, nothing else. I wish this had been developed more convincingly--it wasn't exactly untrue of the Victorian era, but put in the mouth of this mad woman was thus diminished.

It is a week book like this that makes me appreciate even more the achievement of Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials series. There was much to hate in those books, but Mrs. Coulter was truly a scary woman, and the limits on what Lyra could aspire to was set forth compellingly.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Children of God Go Bowling, by Shannon Olson

Can I cut to the chase? Getting married is not the answer to an unsatisfactory and disorganized life. You cannot expect the Right Person to fall into your lap during therapy sessions. Stop whining, and go live your life.

I was willing to ride along with the semi-autobiographical "Shannon Olson" through the first quarter of the book, because she was funny and irreverent. She is also in her early 30s, works for a web-based company, keeps in close contact with her parents, and has a horrible tiny apartment that is full of crap she never deals with. Of course, her problem is that she is not married. Yeah, that's what she thinks.

The first three quarters of the book is devoted primarily to Shannon and her therapy--individual and group--as she whinges about not being married. Her younger sister is married, with a baby, and "Shannon" has to remind herself that her sister's baby "Is not about me." Although that's how she thinks of it--as proof that she herself is being judged and found wanting. This gets tiring fast. No matter what is going on around her, "Shannon" sees it solely as a judgment on her.

Really, you'd think that at 33 (more or less), she could have a little more perspective on her life. She is living with broken, crappy furniture that was left behind by an ex-boyfriend, who moved to Rome years before and got married. Her apartment is too small, but stuffed full of papers and files and dirty dishes and crap, but she just complains about it. Why do anything about it? Why take a friend's offer to help organize? Why look for a larger apartment? Why get rid of the crappy stuff? She does, EVENTUALLY, but only after she all but gets taken by the hand and given a bigger, nicer place.

Rather too much of the book is devoted to her absolute inability to make any decisions of any kind, and her irritated response to any suggestion that she might want to do so. Rather than looking at her own life, she has fixated on her lack of a husband. As she and her best friend from college, Adam, are the last of their friends to be unmarried, she starts to obsess over whether Adam is really The One. There is no reason for the reader to think he is The One, other than he is still unmarried and hanging around with "Shannon." Even she has to twist herself up to think of him romantically, and when she (finally!) broaches it with him, he declines. Because, guess what? He wasn't The One.

Just about the time she is able to realize she is disappointed and angry about this, Adam is diagnosed with cancer and given only a few months to live. She is still so angry that she can't see him or talk to him for a long time. Finally, after far too many therapy sessions, she starts visiting him, they talk briefly, and then he dies.

Which is sad, of course, but more importantly, he dies so that "Shannon" can learn something about living life and not just observing, criticizing and bitching about it. She joins a bowling league with a member of her therapy group, meets a nice looking rabbi's son and asks him out. The End.

In theory, this is a book about confronting adulthood, disappointment, religion, death, friendship, and how things change between people as years pass. In actuality, any of that sort of stuff is crammed into the last quarter of the book and given short shrift. Oh, despite obsessing over why Adam might be The One, it never occurred to me that he is Lutheran (a St. Olaf Lutheran who still goes to church, at that) and this might be a conflict for Catholic Shannon. Because why would she ever think about anything as obvious as that?

After Adam's death, she learns from their mutual friend Ellie that Adam had been in love with Ellie since freshman year in college, notwithstanding Ellie's marriage. Why hadn't I seen that, Shannon wails to herself. I can tell you why; because she never paid any attention to anyone else but herself. The book gets weighted down by the complete self-absorption of the protagonist, and her inability to DO anything about her own life.

While a bit of air enters the book with Adam's illness, the focus remains resolutely on "Shannon's" reaction to it, and what lessons she might learn from it. This got to be tedious, and in the end I cannot recommend this book to anybody. At least Bridget Jones was funnier.