Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Of Ruts

Move over, Britneys and Ashleys, Emilys and Hannahs alike. If it's true, as the late great Molly Ivins once said, that two of anything makes a trend, it's time for the Leahs of the world to shine. Be ready for Leah-heavy sitcoms and dramas. Teachers, brace yourselves for little Leah H., Leah C., Leah Anne and Leah Beth, all in the same class. And yeah, look for more Leahs in literature, as the second new book I checked out last week -- Roommates Wanted by Lisa Jewell -- also features a Leah in a leading role.

Lisa Jewell has a bunch of books out, and I liked the other one I read, One-Hit Wonder. I guess you could term them chick lit, since I can't really imagine a guy reading either one of them. She did something bold for a chick-lit book with her newest: she made the protagonist a guy. That would be one Toby Dobbs. Toby is in his late thirties and has led a depressing life. His mother's dead, his father abandoned him years ago, his marriage lasted all of one month, and although he considers himself a poet, he never writes or does much of anything. The last thing his father did for him was purchase a large Victorian house as a wedding gift. His father had intended for him to fix it up, sell it, and buy a better house to fix up, then sell. Instead, he took out an ad inviting lost souls to come live with him for minimal rent.

He's been living this way for fifteen years when an elderly tenant (who predated him in the house) dies. Enter Leah, his neighbor across the road who discovers the old man. It turns out that the man left Toby a substantial sum of money, with a note stating that Toby's in a rut and is to use the money to make his life less miserable. He determines that that means selling the house, but first he's got to fix it up...and there's the matter of his lost souls, four of them. Toby determines he's got to see all four of them settled and happy before kicking them out.

Not being a naturally curious person, he enlists Leah's help to do so. It turns out that Leah, and most of Toby's tenants, are stuck in various ruts as well. Ruby has been in Toby's house since she was sixteen, and is still sleeping around, staying out all night, and trying to get her singing career off the ground. Melinda is a sort of cougar who had abandoned her son Con (another housemate) when he was young and is now determined to make it up to him whether he wants it or not. The enigmatic Joanne, on the other hand, is so determined to avoid a rut that she firmly rebuffs all conversation that might lead to an attachment. And Leah is settled in a long-term job managing a fluffy gift shop, and has recently had a shakeup in her equally long-term relationship. In short, everyone could be happier.

You know where this story is going right from the start, but Jewell makes it enjoyable to get there. Her characters have a familiar feel, but are for the most part more realistic than archetypal. It's sprinkled with setbacks, twists and turns, and the story of the house has a nice "It's a Wonderful Life" sort of moment when Toby's former tenants return in droves to help finish the renovations when the last of his inheritance goes missing. Is it Shakespeare? Hell no. But Jewell has a good attention to detail and good character development. Pack this one in your beach bag with no reservations.

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