by Wendy Wax, contemporary (2006)
Bantam, $6.99, ISBN 0-553-58897-4
I hate to talk about book labels and categorization because really, I'm not so fussy about wanting only romance in my reading material. But since I am talking about Wendy Wax's latest offering Single In Suburbia to people who may have not read this book yet and would love to, I ought to let it be known that this book is probably mismarketed. It's more of a chick-lit "three female friends" story than a conventional romance and the romance takes a backseat to the ladies' coming to term with themselves. Readers not keen on chick-lit conventions in their books may not appreciate what they will find in this book even if the spine of this book has the word "romance".
Single In Suburban is definitely in my opinion Wendy Wax's strongest book to date in terms of characterization. While this book is still a comedy, the portrayal of our heroine Amanda Sheridan's state of mind as she deals with the realization that her marriage has crumbled and she is left alone to support her two teenaged kids is very well-written and feels too real. Amanda, until now a sheltered housewife of a well-to-do lawyer who doesn't have to do anything more than to live out a romanticized Desperate Housewives fantasy, finds herself relegated to the pariah section when she volunteers at her youngest kid Wyatt's baseball game: she finds herself behind the concession stand with two fellow outsiders in the circle of well-to-do women in the Atlantan suburbs after his husband shows up with his new squeeze, a woman young enough to be his daughter.
The other women are Brooke Mackenzie, a woman from the wrong side of the tracks who hid her past from the much older husband she has married, and fellow newcomer Candace Sugarman, whose clothes and carriage marks her as a socialite. Candace is only here at the baseball match because she's sleeping with the coach Dan Donovan. Together, the three women will find much in common as they ponder about their own relationships as well as each other's. Brooke loves her husband despite the less-than-welcoming stepson she gains from marrying him but she is afraid that her past will come back to haunt her. Candace is sure that she has found the right guy in Dan but her bullying mother won't approve of Dan being just an Average (if richer than average) Joe and Candace is still trying to cast off her mother's shadow. But the main storyline here is Amanda's dealing with her runaway husband and picking up the pieces in the aftermath.
Amanda's initial story is gripping and even heartbreaking as Wendy Wax doesn't try to soften Amanda's sense of helplessness as Amanda comes to term with the fact that her marriage is over. How do you deal with the knowledge that you, who have never worked to support the family, now have to do so since the husband's finances have gone straight down the drain? How do you deal with the children who are trying so hard to be nonchalant about the whole situation? The sense of helplessness, the fear of failing and consequences of such failure on the kids, and the anger at the husband for inexplicably deciding that he no longer loves the wife and has to move on - Amanda experiences all these turbulent emotions and Ms Wax manages to get me to feel for Amanda as I read about the poor dear's marriage falling apart and how Amanda attempts to pick up her life and move on.
But unfortunately, by midway of this story when Amanda gets acquainted with former baseball superstar Hunter James, Single In Suburbia stops being interesting and turns into something equivalent to the movie adaptation of The First Wives Club. The early parts of this story deals with a painful and very real subject with honesty and humor, but once Amanda meets James, it becomes very apparent that Amanda's problems are over. Here's a handsome and rich widower with nice kids - all a woman needs in fiction land to feel happy again. I'm not saying that this is a bad fantasy, mind you, because a loving and understanding person by your side as the rest of the world crumbles around you is a very good thing in fiction as well as in real life. But Ms Wax abruptly switches mood to the point that she pretty much telegraphs to the reader that Amanda's problems are now nothing more than pesky drizzles that happen for a short time before the beautifully sunny day finally arrives. The humor is amped up to even farcical levels: Amanda and Brooke embark on a business venture, Maid For You, where they disguise themselves as French maids to clean their acquaintances' houses. This is more comedic than anything else as they discover the quirks and secrets of their neighbors, such as a proper woman being a dominatrix with her husband behind closed doors.
Comedy is always nice in my opinion and there is some fine comedy here. But I can't help feeling that, by being as obvious as a happy uplifting closure at the end of Oprah's talkshow, Ms Wax has made Amanda's story far less interesting since her problems are clearly over by then. So Amanda stupidly decides to keep a house she can't maintain because she promised the kids that they won't move - now that she has met Hunter, hey, all these worries she has seem trivial now that Hunter is making her as well as her kids happy. By this point, the story has morphed into a sweet but overly romanticized Lifetime movie where our downtrodden heroine manages to find many people who help her pick up the pieces. Candace and Brooke become stronger characters as Amanda becomes less interesting, especially Candace who finally finds the strength and courage to stand up to her bullying mother, but these two women are clearly secondary characters in every sense and they get about half to two pages each for every twenty pages of Amanda in this book.
Like the author's previous books, little to no insight is provided when it comes to the men in this story. Hunter, Dax, and Brooke's Hap are one-dimensional very nice guys who are so perfect that anyone wanting to make the world a better place should clone these guys and sell them everywhere for, oh, $49.99 or something. Hap and Brooke have issues but ultimately, it's Brooke's fault. Hap, you see, wants to trust her and is hurt that she doesn't trust him in return. He's still perfect, you see, he's just hurt because Brooke doesn't realize how special and wonderful he is. Between Hunter the Jock, Dax the Affable Samaritan, and Hap the Mature Cultured Gentleman, they are the holy trinity of What Every Person Who Is Into Guys Dreams Of. Seriously, clone these guys for humanity and save the world, people.
Let me make this clear, I really enjoy reading Single In Suburbia. I'm just disappointed that this book has two pretty clear tones that don't really go well in a cohesive manner: stark vulnerability at the start and sentimentalized feel-good moments later into the story. In fact, I'm quite surprised that Ms Wax didn't include any scene where our three heroines get drunk and start singing out loud about how strong and independent they are. Such a scene is typically a must when it comes to such Triumphant Modern Divorcee stories, after all!
Ultimately, this book starts out wanting to keep things stark, real, honest, and even painful only to veer into feel-good drama when the handsome man shows up and the kids become happy again even as the besieged heroine's problems take a backseat as everything starts to go well again in her life. I have fun with this book, but I can't help feeling that after the first few chapters, everything else about Amanda's too-convenient turnaround from Besieged Divorcee to Hot Post-Divorce Woman feels ersatz.
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