New Fiction

Finds and flops

Writers who produce wildly entertaining books often go underestimated by the literary establishment. Melissa Bank's terrific new novel lacks the topical conflicts and poetic imagery that critics appreciate, and its strong suit a companionable, offhand sense of humor leading to subtle revelations of character is deceptively difficult to achieve. Without straining for effect, Bank captures the lively inner world of an unassuming narrator, Sophie Applebaum, who endures a continual series of minor social and professional failures but manages to avoid crushing defeat. Allergic to the spotlight, Sophie tends to recede into the background of her episodic story (which spans twenty-five years), permitting the vivid escapades of family and friends to upstage her own.

The Wonder Spot is strikingly similar to Bank's deservedly beloved (and presumably autobiographical) 1999 best seller The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing; we revisit an essentially happy suburban childhood, the death of a father, flirtations with various creative-writing cads and other woes of a comically rudderless love life. And both books are funny in a generous-spirited way, but The Wonder Spot takes on weightier issues. Bank's central theme is the lifelong quest to balance obligation and personal pleasure, a conflict each Applebaum must somehow resolve. Sophie may have difficulty perceiving her role in the unfolding dramas, but she nonetheless works through the big questions by embracing the struggles of others. And so when Sophie's dutiful mother jettisons her rigid notions of propriety and rekindles an old romance, we rightly assume that Sophie, too, will ultimately choose happiness. The first time her mom utters her lover's name, Sophie says, "I heard something in her voice that I'd only ever seen dozens of tiny silver fish jumping out of the bay in Martha's Vineyard and it was as surprising and beautiful a sound as it had been a sight."

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Elizabeth Judd is a writer in Washington, D.C.

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