I adored this book. Just adored it. But I think I drove my husband crazy while I was reading it. [Okay, make that crazier.]
Every new revelation about couples in or out of love would get me going and I’d pepper him with questions: “What are my five favorite movies?” I’d challenge. (He named his five favorite.) “What are my favorite foods?” (He totally amazed me by not knowing a single one.) “Do you feel lucky; blessed; chosen?” (He’s still laughing.)
This book may be about love, but I should clarify: it definitely is not a “chick book.” The writing is exuberantly intelligent, outrageously perceptive, witty, touching, and sometimes even revelatory.
Cornelia and Teo Sandoval move from the city to a moderately wealthy suburb whose inhabitants have a “country club mentality” about the acceptability of appearances, norms, and behavior. Even though Teo is an oncologist and thus has a proper social status, and has gorgeous eyes and a sexy grin to cover up any lapses from propriety (the rules for which in any event apply less to men than to women), Cornelia follows her own drummer, and is at first a pariah because of it.
At their first social dinner, for example, Cornelia wore what she thought was an “entirely appropriate” dress and high-heeled sandals. As soon as she entered the gathering, she saw it was all wrong:
“In fact, as far as I could tell, any dress would’ve been wrong because Megan and every single other woman in the room was wearing pants. Linen pants. Linen pants with sleeveless silk blouses or cotton sweaters. It was a pastel-colored prairie of linen pants and sleeveless tops, stretching in every direction as far as the eye could see.”
What was hilarious about the book is that the next thing you know, you’re hearing a description of the party from Cornelia’s snobby neighbor, Piper:
“Piper had told Elizabeth about the cocktail party, about Cornelia’s ludicrously skimpy black dress and … four-inch-high ‘do-me’ shoes. ‘Fuck-me’ is what she’d meant, but Piper only ever swore in her head. If she had been being completely honest, she’d have to retract the bit about the shoes. Yes, they were high, but they were understated enough in other ways, little pale gold sandals with thin straps. But Piper could tweak a detail here and there if she felt like it, couldn’t she? She wasn’t a reporter for the New York Times, was she?”
The book is full of such wickedly funny satirical observations about this social group, and yet, even they turn out not to be the one-dimensional Stepford people they appear to be at first.
One theme that runs through the novel – the social implications of Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest – plays out in a way perhaps best expressed by Cornelia’s academically-inclined sister Ollie:
“…as I see it, the problem with you, Cornelia, is that, in managing the stressors in your new environment, you’re relying on the ‘fight-or-flight’ response, a biobehavioral pattern that was long assumed to apply to both men and women. The new and well-supported thinking on this subject suggests that, in fact, women more readily and effectively cope with stress through ‘tend-and-befriend’ behavior, which, like most behaviors, is undoubtedly the result of evolutionary pressures.”
Cornelia thinks she has found a friend in Lake, a smart and articulate waitress with a very gifted 13-year old son, Dev. But Lake pulls away from Cornelia out of the blue. Just as oddly, Piper gravitates toward her. And when Cornelia and Teo’s “surrogate” daughter Clare arrives for a visit, Dev forms a bond with Clare that transcends time and distance and all social barriers.
The relationships among all of the characters become extremely complex in unexpected ways as they all get to know each other better. “How cool,” Dev says at one point, “to be someone’s there.” To belong together. It’s something everyone in this story wants. But it doesn’t always come easily; it takes work, and compassion, even (and especially) for oneself.
Discussion: I love the way the author plays with perceptions, showing us that one person’s “cute black dress” is another person’s nightmare. Or this wonderful insight about the egocentric nature of our perceptions writ large made by Dev, when he is talking about Darwin in school:
“Well, you can sort of see how people might think that humans are the pinnacle of evolution because we have high reasoning and creativity and supercomplex brains. I think a lot of people think that, in fact. … [But] It’s not about us. We think we’re the center of everything because we’re smarter than other animals, but even that’s not fair because we invented the whole idea of ‘smart’ and we decided smart means the thing that we are. When you think about it, whales are smarter than we are when it comes to surviving in the deep ocean, right?”
…Which is all to say that you can hardly find a more entertaining metaphorical treatment of the process of evolution and survival of the fittest than this novel. And yet, you don’t even have to be aware of that aspect of it to love it for its lively, witty prose that is nevertheless steeped in compassion for the human condition.
Evaluation: There is so much good about this book. There isn’t one character I wasn’t in love with by the end of the book. This story examines almost every permutation you can imagine of the interrelationships between friends, enemies, and lovers. Highly recommended!
BUT!!!! I have to tell you, there is a prequel, Love Walked In, which I didn’t know before reading this book. You might want to read the prequel first.
Published by William Morrow, 2008