Melissa Bank is one lucky lady.
Her first book, The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, was published in 1999, when a girl could turn in a witty, rueful tale about a single girl looking for love without being instantly cast into the hot-pink purgatory known as ”chick lit.”
Back in those heady days, just after Bridget Jones and prior to the explosion of sexy, sassy tales packaged in Easter egg pastels, you could be a young, urban female writer exploring the life and times of a young, urban heroine — bad boss, funny friends, vexing family, even the desire to meet and marry a good man — and still have the critics take you seriously.
You didn’t have to gild your manuscript with McSweeney’s-esque footnotes or name-check Grandpa’s shtetl; nor did you have to invite autobiographical comparisons by touting your time working for Anna Wintour or stapling your high-school yearbook picture to your novel’s press kit.
So The Wonder Spot, Bank’s bittersweet, tremendously winning return, isn’t just a great read. It is a wake-up call, alerting the literary establishment that stories about young women’s coming-of-age can still be enthralling, engaging, and deserving of their notice.
Our guide through this linked story collection is Sophie Applebaum of Surrey, Pa.: clear-eyed and smart-mouthed, an underachiever in a family of standouts. When we meet Sophie, she’s being dragged to the bat mitzvah of a prissy cousin (”[She looks] like a long-stemmed rose!” rhapsodizes Sophie’s mother, to which our heroine replies, ”She looks like a piece of hair with hair”). Subsequent stories find her playing the plain-Jane friend of a campus beauty, working in publishing for her brother’s ex-girlfriend, and having her heart broken by everyone from a nerdy neurologist to a motorcycle-riding bad boy. We watch Sophie boomerang from Surrey to New York City and back again, fail at love, flail in the workplace, struggle with friendships that never come together or slowly fall apart.
There are plenty of recurring themes and motifs from The Girls’ Guide — standard poodles, vintage typewriters, and charming big brothers all reappear. The heroines of both books endure the death of their father.
In addition, many characters seem blessed with the identical quippy sense of humor (when Sophie tells a beau that she knew her ex ”so long ago he had a different name,” her boyfriend asks, ”Beelzebub?”). Will this trouble readers? Not a bit. It’s a little disconcerting to find characters from both books calling take-out Chinese food ”Chinoise,” but Bank more than makes up for any redundancies with the warmth and subtlety of her writing and dead-on, deadpan dialogue.
Chick-lit lovers accustomed to triumphant endings — the inevitable appearance of the perfect man; the take-this-job-and-shove-it finales of The Nanny Diaries or The Devil Wears Prada — might find the conclusion a slight letdown. We leave Sophie at a party with a new boyfriend, 10 years younger and ”full of hope,” while she feels ”every pound of my weight, every year of my age.”
Sophie Applebaum’s story might end while she’s still groping toward her place in the world. Lucky for fans of smart, identifiable heroines who feel like our best friends, only better, Melissa Bank has definitely found hers.
(Jennifer Weiner is the author of the novels Good in Bed, In Her Shoes, and Little Earthquakes.)