Monday, August 3, 2009

The One That Got Away: Lisa Jewell Delivers Again

I figured it was time to start making a dent in all of those books I just renewed, and began with Lisa Jewell's Vince and Joy. This is the fourth book I've read by her, and they've all been terrific. I like her flawed, funny, vivid characters. I like the slightly offbeat scenarios. I like the way it all winds up working out in the end.

I'd have to say that there's a lot more sadness in Vince and Joy than in most of her other books, though. The title characters first meet when they're nineteen. Each is on a family holiday. Each already has a sad and difficult past. Vince had an underbite so severe, it affected his outward appearance, prevented him from chewing properly, and required surgery. It also prevented him from ever having a girlfriend, as even the most desperate and unattractive girls shunned him. Joy suffered a nervous breakdown due to the twin stresses of university applications and catching her father having sex with their neighbor in their kitchen. She had more experience than Vince, but it was thoroughly unsatisfying and repulsive.

But when they met, it was love at first sight. They spent a magical few days together that culminated in a shared first sexual experience. Then, Joy's family split in the middle of the night. Joy left a note for Vince, but as fate would have it, it rained all night, and all he could read was the phrase, "I feel so ashamed." Years later, he found out that what she was actually ashamed of was the fact that while they were having sex, their parents were getting drunk together and his father sexually assaulted Vince's mother.

But by then, their two roads had diverged. And sadly, neither of them wound up living a very happy life. Joy got married to a man she'd only known for a couple of months, who turned out to be weird, moody, anti-social and controlling. Vince settled with a woman who was almost the extreme opposite: an ex-club kid and hedonist who aggressively returned to her roots, going out every Saturday night for drugs and dancing even after their baby arrived. Fate throws them in each other's path quite a few times -- Vince finds Joy right before her wedding day and watches it from across the street; Joy bumps into Vince many years later, just as she's finally ready to leave her husband and he's about to get married.

But like the other books, there is a lot of brightness interwoven with what is overall, a rather sad tale. Many interesting characters linger around the edges of the drama: Vince's hippie roommate Cass, who looks for Joy in her crystal ball; Joy's oddball roommate Julia and her transsexual best friend Bella; Vince's cool young parents who start a second family; Joy's plain overweight mother with a surprising past that sheds light on her unhappy marriage. Jewell has a real gift for characters. They're usually archetypal enough to remind you of someone you've known, but they're not two-dimensional either. They don't just sit in their boxes of "frump," "hippie," and "campy". Jewell lets them out to breathe and run around, so that even at the end of a very sad story, you wind up feeling good.

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