There’s nothing like a fictional White House full of boring people to make you long for the days of Josh Lyman and C.J. Cregg.
Wonky staffers were eloquent on The West Wing, even when inadvertently inventing secret plans to fight inflation. Dialogue sparkled. Chemistry sizzled. But Kristin Gore isn’t Aaron Sorkin, and her new novel neither sparkles nor sizzles. Instead it meanders, content to idle in introduction and background until finally settling into a plot.
Once the pace picks up, though, it’s not a bad ride. The story finds 28-year-old Samantha Joyce working for Vice President Robert Gary (not to be confused with Gore’s dad, Al) as a health care adviser. Dedicated to boss, job and country, Sammy embraces bright-eyed idealism: “At our cores, we believed we really could change the world.”
A series of scandals tests her enthusiasm. The formerly sober president hits the bottle. Congress launches an inquiry into a prescription drug deal with India that Sammy helped orchestrate. And every administration misstep is chronicled on a blog whose source is the subject of much speculation.
Gore, who has also written comedy for television, lightens the mood by giving Sammy an arsenal of peculiarities. She’s a hypochondriac health expert who totes Tamiflu and an eye patch. She celebrates obscure milestones, such as the 146th anniversary “of the revelation that George Eliot was actually a woman.” She is a walking pratfall.
But the catalog of oddities just makes Sammy seem like a caricature. She is most relatable when interacting with her sweet Ohio parents and dealing with separation anxiety after her reporter boyfriend moves to New York.
The novel could drop about 100 pages, especially the one that uses the word “plenary.” Too often, the writing is stilted and uptight, clunky where it should be breezy. But Gore, whose previous novel Sammy’s Hill followed the heroine and her boss from the Senate to the campaign trail, knows Washington, and she delights in skewering the political machine. It could just be coincidence that the previous president “had managed to thoroughly mangle things over the course of two disastrous terms” and that a senator named Rich Toram—sound familiar, Pennsylvania?—is compared to SpongeBob SquarePants. But it’s more fun to think that similarities are not accidental.
Also fun: imagining global warming discussions during Gore family dinners. Such lines as “Don’t you feel like nature’s going nuts lately?” make it clear that climate concern runs in the family.
Most chick lit wouldn’t touch prescription drug policy with a 5-inch stiletto, so Gore gets points for injecting smarts into a genre that prefers to dwell on shopping and hair color. If only she could make brains seem less boring and more dazzling.