Sunday, July 28, 2013

When It Happens to You by Molly Ringwald

Connected stories. A Los Angeles setting. Broken families. We could be talking about Brett Easton Ellis's "The Informers", but Molly Ringwald's debut fiction (and second book) is a very different beast. In an interview at the end of the paperback edition she talks of the influence of Carver and Lorrie Moore, and that's almost a given; but Ringwald sensibly avoids the blue collar lives of the former and the disorientated loners of the latter, and weaves a web of stories around a modern family's slow, but predictable breakdown.

Ostensibly a collection of stories, the majority focus on the relationship of Phillip and Greta, together from college, but drifting apart as his consultancy job takes him away and she struggles with the fertility treatment that she hopes will give them a sibling for 6-year old Charlotte. In Ringwald's modern day Los Angeles the lives are as flat as the landscape and we rarely get a specific sense of place - which seems at one with our common fictional depiction of that west coast city's sprawl. Yet the lack of specificity, with malls, restaurants, doctors' waiting rooms and airport lounge being the public places where the drama plays out, seems appropriate for a book that is far more forensic about the little things that define who we love and whom. The opener, "The Harvest Moon", may well be the book's strongest story as - and here we do see an echo of Carver's sense of the beautiful moment - Greta and Phillip rush to get Charlotte in the car so they can catch sight of the harvest moon of the title. They fail to see it, and have to get back for Charlotte's violin lesson. When, later in the evening he takes the young violin teacher home, returning much later, waking his wife when he gets back in, the sense of a moment of domestic crisis is subtley handled.

But Ringwald has written a collection of stories rather than a novel - and though basically in chronological order - this allows a selecting of which parts of the story she wants to tell. We see the aftermath's of a couple's separation and the story of how they got there is told obliquely. Greta and Phillip were both high fliers, but he was the one who went for the career and she played down her ambitions to stay with him, first by following him to the same college, then through becoming a homemaker. Somewhere along the way, the 44-year old Greta seems to have lost a decade; and declining fertility, and the various treatments that mean the couple have six embryos stored in a clinic somewhere, are a stark reminder of how marriage breakdown is also about life and death.

Along the way, we are introduced to other characters whose lives intersect with Phillip, Greta and Charlotte's : Peter, a youngish vain actor who found a paycheck for a dozen years in a children's TV show, but is now lost and out of work in an adult world he's been somewhat avoiding; and Oliver, a little boy who wants to be a girl, and how his single mother deals with this. It is a book that deliberately eschews the showy or the over-the-top, instead finding its centre in the little (melo)dramas off what are on the surface comfortable lives.

There's very few externalities in these stories, but you do get a sense of the contemporary middle American experience at a time of recession and uncertainty; where lives can sometimes be thrown apart through the simple lonelinesses of modernity - of which Los Angeles remains the supreme capital. The old lady next door to Charlotte who befriends the six-year-old as she strays into first her garden, then her house, remains utterly unknown to Charlotte's mother - who only knows something has happened when the moving van arrives outside. In what is probably the weakest story, Phillip, having been served with divorce papers by his wife, goes to see his brother - a recovering alcoholic who now runs the family diner. Ringwald writes that she struggles with the male perspective yet its not this so much as the lack of centre to the story. Too much is hinted at and brought in with the introduction of Phillip's brother, without being fully resolved.

Family is therefore seen as both the cause and solution - and Ringwald is adept at the little details of familiarity that exist between siblings, husbands and wives, parents and their children; at equal parts knowing and unknowing. At times there is not enough to keep the longer stories going, and Ringwald resorts to too much exposition, yet skip these longeurs and you can forgive these lesser parts, as the stories become a more satisfying whole. Its no more a novel than or "Cathedral" or "Birds of America" or less one than "A Visit from the Goon Squad" or "Hawthorn and Child" with Ringwald's characters given an inter-locking narrative which strengthens rather than weakens the parts. I'm reminded more of our English chronicler of the middle class, Helen Simpson, in the way Ringwald finds the points of interest in what might otherwise be somewhat uninteresting lives.

Ringwald is, of course, better known as an actress, and though I think she brings a confidence to these stories which is somewhat cinematic, the collection is almost deliberately about people outside the movie industry, only the story of Peter, "Ursa Minor" being set in that celebrity world. The title story is more of an interlude, written in the second person, addressed from the wronged woman to the younger woman who took her husband, and its foregrounding as a title is, I think, an attempt to unify these stories which it probably helps achieve. Much quieter a book than you might imagine to come from our contemporary America, Ringwald's debut is in some ways far more realistic in its portrayals of women and family than the similarly middle-class family in Frantzen's "Freedom." It will be interesting to see if she expands her ambitions following this well-received debut.

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