Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Last Jewell

Finishing the last of all the books a particular author has written is bittersweet. It's worse if the author is dead, because there will be no more. But even with a living author, it's bittersweet. You're done discovering now, and just waiting for something new, like everyone else.

In the case of Lisa Jewell, the last, quite randomly, happened to be the first. Ralph's Party was the novel she wrote on a bet, after losing the last in a succession of shitty jobs, and it launched her career.

The book deals with similar themes as most of her other books. Volumes and volumes have been written about the frothy, initial venture into adulthood, which usually winds up looking more like a kid's version of adulthood accompanied by a shitty job. But it seems that there's less about exploring the second phase of adulthood, the one which involves mortgages and babies and responsible jobs. Jewell's books deal with these themes, and with the inherent conflicts and ambivalence that often accompany these life decisions. Many of her characters have a sort of creative and bohemian bent, and don't want to become their parents. Yet, they realize they're getting a bit old to rent grungy apartments, stay out drinking all night, and indulge in random hookups.

Most of these conflicts have a satisfactory, if not totally happy, resolution in Jewell's books. Ralph's Party is no exception. The twin plots in the book are loosely bound together by the fact that the principals all live in the same apartment building. In the basement, the rivaly-friendship of stuffed-shirt Smith and freewheeling artist Ralph is shaken when they acquire a pretty female flatmate named Jem. Above them, long-term couple Siobhan and Karl and trying to sort out their future. Siobhan has not worked in a while, has put on weight, and is feeling at loose ends, old and unattractive. Karl, although still very attracted to his girlfriend, has had an utterly meaningless affair with Cheri from the top floor. His life has also changed with a major job opportunity, making Siobhan feel even more insecure. Cheri is also a factor in the triangle brewing down in the basement, although she doesn't know it -- she's been Smith's unrequited love interest for five years, despite the fact that their most meaningful exchange involved the weather. It's like "Friends," except these people aren't.

I was certain I knew halfway through how both situations would resolve, but I was only half-right. Still, I walked away satisfied, and still, the book had its own forward momentum towards its inevitable conclusion. The one criticism I would have of this book is that two of the characters -- Smith and Cheri -- were severely underdeveloped. Throughout the book, you get long stretches of the perspectives of the other four principals, but almost nothing of these two. In Cheri, I can see the beginnings of Delilah from Thirtynothing. But Delilah was a human being. Cheri is all cold, deadly, selfish beauty and nothing more. Smith? He's just nothing. We learn little of him other than that he's a banker, has been carrying on this fantasy affair with Cheri for five years, and has been friends with Ralph since high school.

But, hey. Jewell was just starting out with this book. Since then, her books have gotten better, her plots have gotten more creative, and her characters have gotten deeper and more original. All of her successive books are crammed to the gills with interesting folk, who have big dreams, make stupid mistakes, and who you ultimately want to see happy. I can forgive a couple of cardboard cut-outs in her first time out. I just hope she's working on something new now!