Well, crap. Instead of getting another snarky, â€œletâ€™s discuss the sucky partsâ€ review, you get another happy, gushy, â€œhot damn on a cracker this was a good bookâ€ review from me. Sorry folks. Iâ€™m on a streak of reading enjoyable, well-written books. It doesnâ€™t suck to be me, but with the decrease in snark from the Sarah department, it might suck to be you. Maybe I should go take a crapful old book I saved upstairs and reread it so as to discuss the tawdry bits.
That said, Time Off for Good Behavior was so bittersweet and adorable I cried at the end, and there is nothing more alarming to total strangers on the midtown-direct bus than a visibly pregnant woman snuffling into her book with big fat tears running down her face. They think Iâ€™m in labor or in pain and the idea that Iâ€™m hormonally weeping over the happy ending does not excuse my crying. So I had to hide my face and bite my lip, but if Iâ€™d been at home, Iâ€™d have had a nice big blubbery cry over the ending of the book â€“ the kind where your insides go, â€œAwww, dammit, thatâ€™s wonderful.â€
There are plenty of reasons why I should choke on the green-eyed monster over this book, too, and specifically want to snarl at the author. The first draft was a Nanowrimo book. People actually Finish and then PUBLISH their nanowrimo manuscripts? Itâ€™s enough to make me think, â€œWell, shit, I can do that.â€ Ha. In November of this year, G-d willing, I will have a newborn. Ainâ€™t no novel writing going on in my house unless the world wants sleep-deprived Sarah between early-am feedings writing a screed about the completely insane thoughts in her head.
Lani Diane Richâ€™s first book, which won the RWA Best First Book RITA award, is a cleverly constructed novel that explores the process and ramifications of changing your life around entirely, and reconstructing it after finding yourself in misery with a life you donâ€™t enjoy. Wanda, the heroine, lies in a coma in the first chapter after trying to punch a smarmy attorney in the head after he calls into question her integrity on the witness stand. Wanda, never one to have a thought and leave it unexpressed, awakes from her coma and finds another attorney has been sitting by her bedside, offering her the opportunity for litigation in response to the accident in the courtroom. She has had more than enough of lawyers and sends him on his way, even though heâ€™s really freaking cute.
Wanda is a fabulously faceted character: sheâ€™s got at least six dimensions, and is what I call a Cilantro Person. People either love cilantro in their salsa and Mexican food, or think it tastes like soap. Iâ€™ve never met anyone who thought, â€œMeh. Cilantro.â€ Iâ€™m sure no one in the backstory of this novel ever met Wanda and thought little about her afterward.
Let me tell you how much I dig Wanda, and Richâ€™s writing style. Itâ€™s taut â€“ not a word wasted in revealing Wanda through Wandaâ€™s own first person observations. And sheâ€™s freaking funny, too. For example, Wanda ponders the possibility that a former classmate has found happiness as a stay at home mom with her children:
The possibility occurred to me, for a brief moment, that it might be actually attainable, this sense of purpose and fulfillment that Dr. Phil and Oprah keep talking about.
And then Bill Oâ€™Reilly came on, and I realized the whole world was a bottomless pit of crap, just like Iâ€™d always known.
From writing the dialogue of people who speak? In questions? By ending their sentences with question marks? to locating the plot in popular culture references that highlight how hard it is to embark on honest and difficult self-discovery when itâ€™s the stylish thing to do, Richâ€™s writing is fun, savvy, and genuine, and I loved it like I love chocolate chip cookies.
If you read the Amazon reviews of this book, some people loved it, and some people found Wanda monstrously unlikable. I made the mistake of looking at the Amazon listing before I got into the book, and worried that Iâ€™d react to Wanda like I reacted to Seinfeld. I hated that show â€“ they were all so unlikable! They were mean and petty and self-centered and stupid and yet they were theâ€¦heroes? What the damn hell? I spend most of my working day with 9 million largely unlikable people; why would I spend my leisure time with four more hateful butt-munches as well? So if Amazon reviewers, who I should know better than to listen to half the time, thought Wanda was a heroine that they couldnâ€™t root for, would I feel the same?
Nope. She is not often nice, and itâ€™s frustrating to see her repeatedly push away people who are trying to be kind to her, but once you understand the motivations driving that habit, you empathize with her and, in my case, cheer her on, particularly as she starts to rebuild her life.
Wanda leaves the hospital, returns to work only to find out sheâ€™s been fired from her job selling television advertising for really stupid ass reasons, and then receives more phone calls and threats from her abusive ex-husband. She sinks into a dramatic depression and resists any and all attempts of help from Walter, that cute attorney in her hospital room, until he realizes sheâ€™s in danger and has her move into his apartment for safety.
Rich constructs several clever and thought-provoking events to drive the plot, not the least of which is a newspaper ad that says, â€œDo Something Meaningful.â€ Wanda responds with an ad of her own, asking who the hell would say such a thing, but through the course of over-editing, Wanda ends up not with the answer to her question, but phone calls from random people telling her who they are. One of them, Elizabeth, becomes Wandaâ€™s friend and guide as she navigates herself back into a life she wants instead of the life she finds herself in, and gives her the tools to constructing that new life.
As Wanda moves from task to task in that reconstruction, the reader gets to know a person who is very, very prickly on the outside, who the reader might want to smack upside the head for her obstinate rejection of all overtures of friendship and kindness, but who at the core is a good person trying to overturn a lot of injustice in her life. Itâ€™s almost like watching someone meander through a 12-step program, only instead of following a prescribed set of steps, Wanda has to pick the issues she most struggles with, and correct them. From finding a job to patching up relationships, Wanda goes on the attack to adjust a life that seems to have attacked her from all sides. Of course, part of that rebuilding is acknowledging her own responsibility in what happens to her, and recognizing the motivations that drove her there.
As with any book that deals with a characterâ€™s self-realization and personal growth, the difficulty comes in finding balance between the need for making changes to oneâ€™s attitude, and the realization that oneâ€™s attitude towards oneself might have been the only thing that needed changing in the first place. Wandaâ€™s choices that led her to a life she didnâ€™t like stemmed from a critical element of her attitude toward herself, and once she adjusted that, she learned to act differently.
ARGH! Here Be Vague Spoilers:
My problem with the ending, and what prevented me from giving this book a solid A, was that her realization to restore the balance between â€œkeep fixing meâ€ and â€œIâ€™m damn fine as-isâ€ came out of nowhere, it seemed to me. Without giving away the ending, she never acknowledges that she realizes she was worth the many gestures of friendship all through the story, but at the end, in the final scene, pronounces herself a fool for pushing herself towards a goal of self-recreation when from the start was a good person as-is. She needed to adjust her attitude certainly, but to stand up suddenly and say â€œOh, I was fine all along and I never realized it!â€ had a patina of afterschool special moralizing to it that seemed to come out of left field instead of developing from her growth and increased self awareness in the last few chapters of the book. After such a fight to get from misery to happiness, I didnâ€™t expect Wanda to take that happiness so quickly and wrap it up in a nice bow to finish it off.
Two, unless I missed it, thereâ€™s a storyline left unfinished, where the reader doesnâ€™t find out what happened to Elizabeth and her ex-husband. The ex hubby has the same problem as Wanda â€“ he destroys his happiness because he doesnâ€™t think he truly deserves any and is more content to fail than risk not succeeding as everyone expects he will. But while Wanda realizes correctly she is responsible solely for her own life, Rich leaves Elizabethâ€™s storyline unfinished in such a way that I didnâ€™t feel invited to create my own ending so much as I thought, â€œHey, wait a minute, what aboutâ€¦?â€
Arrrgh! Here End the Vague Spoilers!
Iâ€™ve been asking myself since I finished this book if someone with a different attitude would find Wanda unredeemable. It is difficult to set the limit for a character who has to descend into a miserable situation and then climb back out, I would think, because some people would find the actions that led to that descent so distasteful that thereâ€™d be no redeeming her, while other readers may be able to relate to shooting oneself in the foot repeatedly before eventually learning better aim. I related to Wanda because I have done some seriously boneheaded things in my life based on a belief of self-worth that was completely incorrect, and I can appreciate how hard it is to change a fundamental value of oneâ€™s attitude.
So while the ending seemed neatly drawn together from very ragged seams at the very last moment, I truly wanted to see that happy ending. Especially because it is a difficult thing to take a cranky, ornery, and very unfiltered person and have them find happiness and embrace it without having that same happiness change their entire demeanor to pink throbbing hearts and fluffy bunnies. Wanda remains who she is, only better. Well done.