Book Review

Time Off for Good Behavior, by Lani Diane Rich


Title: Time Off for Good Behavior
Author: Lani Diane Rich
Publication Info: Warner Books 2004
ISBN: 0446693065
Genre: Chick Lit

Well, crap. Instead of getting another snarky, “let’s discuss the sucky parts†review, you get another happy, gushy, “hot damn on a cracker this was a good book†review from me. Sorry folks. I’m on a streak of reading enjoyable, well-written books. It doesn’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 I’m in labor or in pain and the idea that I’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 I’d been at home, I’d have had a nice big blubbery cry over the ending of the book – the kind where your insides go, “Awww, dammit, that’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? It’s enough to make me think, “Well, shit, I can do that.†Ha. In November of this year, G-d willing, I will have a newborn. Ain’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 Rich’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 don’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 he’s really freaking cute.

Wanda is a fabulously faceted character: she’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. I’ve never met anyone who thought, “Meh. Cilantro.†I’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 Rich’s writing style. It’s taut – not a word wasted in revealing Wanda through Wanda’s own first person observations. And she’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 O’Reilly came on, and I realized the whole world was a bottomless pit of crap, just like I’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 it’s the stylish thing to do, Rich’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 I’d react to Wanda like I reacted to Seinfeld. I hated that show – they were all so unlikable! They were mean and petty and self-centered and stupid and yet they were the…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 couldn’t root for, would I feel the same?

Nope. She is not often nice, and it’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 she’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 she’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, “Do Something Meaningful.†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 Wanda’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. It’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 character’s self-realization and personal growth, the difficulty comes in finding balance between the need for making changes to one’s attitude, and the realization that one’s attitude towards oneself might have been the only thing that needed changing in the first place. Wanda’s choices that led her to a life she didn’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 “keep fixing me†and “I’m damn fine as-is†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 “Oh, I was fine all along and I never realized it!†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 didn’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, there’s a storyline left unfinished, where the reader doesn’t find out what happened to Elizabeth and her ex-husband. The ex hubby has the same problem as Wanda – he destroys his happiness because he doesn’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 Elizabeth’s storyline unfinished in such a way that I didn’t feel invited to create my own ending so much as I thought, “Hey, wait a minute, what about…?â€


Arrrgh! Here End the Vague Spoilers!

I’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 there’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 one’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. 

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Rosina says:

    My experience with chicklit hasn’t been very good. Maybe because I’m generally not a fan of first person narrators. But now you’ve got me interested, and so I’ll go read this one.

    Your description of the reactions to the book reminds me of Kinsale’s FOR MY LADY’S HEART. I adore Melanthe for her complexity and strength, but many find her too bitchy. This character sounds like she might belong to that same sisterhood.

    Now maybe you can suggest a paranormal that I might like. Because, I hate to say this but, I haven’t found one yet that I could finish.

  2. 2
    SB Sarah says:

    Have you tried Bitten by Kelley Armstrong? I enjoyed it thoroughly, and it also featured a heroine who was a little tired of being constantly told what to do with herself, even though she needed the guidance, and who needed to learn to accept her fate.

  3. 3
    Robin says:

    Okay, I’m going to buy this book.  You know why?  Not because of the RITA award, but because you did what I think more people need to do in positive reviews:  you actually pointed out all the reasons you liked the book and gave it a high grade.  So many gushing reviews I read somehow seem to take for granted that saying, “I loved it” will motivate everyone to go out and read X book, but I actually think it’s harder to review a book you like than one you don’t, because you actually have to articulate what works.  With a book you don’t like—like the one I’m reading now—lists form willy nilly in your head with all the violations an author is committing on your good sense and suspension of disbelief.  But with a book you like, it requires much more effort to be specific about what works and why.  You did that, Sarah, and you did it in a way that made me a) know what I’m getting into, and b) want to get into it.  Thanks.

  4. 4
    SB Sarah says:

    Hey Robin: THANK YOU. It is SO FREAKING ALMIGHTY HARD to write a good review without sounding like a gushy ass-kissing sycophant to the author. It’s hard to talk about what works without giving away a lot of the plot (though the same is hard when reviewing a bad ending or plot twist that you don’t like). But thanks for the support – it took me all morning to write this review and then go back and double check that I had something worth saying other than, “Oh my gaaaaaaaaash I loved it it made me cryyyyyyy!”

  5. 5
    Nicole says:

    I am so buying this book.  Or at least finding it somewhere.

  6. 6
    Selah March says:

    I read this book last year while on a grueling road trip through the badlands of Utah with my husband, my husband’s ex-wife, HER new husband, and the petulant teenaged boy we attempt to co-parent.

    When I tell you that this book not only saved my life and my sanity, but may also have saved my companions’ lives and made it so that I am not sitting on Utah’s death row even as we speak…

    Wait…does Utah even have the death penalty? No matter. They would’ve reinstated it for me. For without this book? My crime spree would’ve been LEGENDARY. The trail of corpses…I shudder to think.

    Seriously, it’s an especially good story if you’re looking for something cathartic. Made me bawl, and I wasn’t even pregnant.

  7. 7
    SB Sarah says:

    ok, it didn’t stop me from committing a felony, but it was still a damn good book.

    Daaaaamn, Selah. That is ONE HELL of a recommendation.

  8. 8
    PC Cast says:

    Sarah – Damn, you so kick ass as a reviewer!  I’m buying the book.  It’s so amazing that you and Candy write articulate, entertaining, informative reviews.  Thank you.

    Sara Donati – First, I adore your work and have all your books.  Second – you want a paranormal you can finish?  READ ME!!!  Email me privately at phyl @ with an address and I’ll send you Goddess of Spring.  Seriously.

  9. 9
    Alyssa says:

    I’m going to give this one a try. I read (and reviewed) Maybe Baby, and while I loved Rich’s voice, I wasn’t as fond of the characters. This one sounds intriguing.

  10. 10
    Nadia says:

    I tried to get into this book and couldn’t at all.  The opening scenes in the courtroom demanded too much suspension of disbelief.  She wouldn’t have gotten a quarter of the way to falling out of the witness box because the judge would have had her removed, or held in contempt, or something.  Outside of the television courtrooms, poeple just aren’t allowed to go off like that.  There’s too much fear of psychos and terrorists.
    I did read a bit more, but I still figured this was a woman whose head I did not want to live in for any length of time.  I’ve wondered if this had been third person, instead of first, if I mightn’t have found it less objectionable, even seen the humor in some of it.  I think I’d need that distance to be able to handle her.

  11. 11
    SB Sarah says:

    Isn’t it interesting, Nadia, that Wanda is such a strong personality that readers either love her or can’t deal with her drama?

    I totally agree with you about the courtroom scene – with our alarmed society she would have been hauled off before she called the attorney names. But, in terms of fantasy, I kept thinking, ‘How many people wish they could say that to an obnoxious employer, or even an attorney who is playing mean?’ Maybe a lot of Wanda is an opportunity for wish-fulfillment in the cranky department, as she says a lot of thigns that maybe people wish they could also say and not face such consequences.

    But I’m glad you spoke up, since I was wondering why I thought she was pricky but relatable, and wondered why people found her too prickly and unlikable. You may be right that it’s the 1st person setting that makes the difference, since the reader has no choice but to reside in the head of that character, like him/her or not.

  12. 12
    Stef2 says:

    This was a give-away book at the RWA national conference, and is now teetering within my tbr stack, which is taking over the world.

    If I could just get some time to read.  Thanks for the insightful review, Sarah.  Now my curiosity is killing me, so TOFGB will go closer to the top of the stack.

    Stef, wondering if I’ll like Wanda…

  13. 13
    SB Sarah says:

    I’m curious too – like I said in the review, she’s such a cilantro personality. Let me know what y’all think if you read it, please!

  14. 14
    Jennifer says:

    I loved it like you did, Sarah, but you wrote a much better review of it than I did back in the day.

    Lani is awesome.

  15. 15
    Sugar says:

    Funny about your cilantro remark. I love it but friend says it reminds her of cockroaches. Will snap up the book if it ever comes to our shores.

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