The blurb on the back cover of Famous Baby notes that author Karen Rizzo’s plays “have been staged at several theaters.” With its larger-than-life characters, spontaneous and slightly incredible emotional vicissitudes, and tragicomic misunderstandings, Rizzo’s first novel would in fact make a fine play, and would possibly work even better that way than it does as a novel — but there’s plenty here as it is to keep a reader turning pages and feeling not unsatisfied upon turning the last one.
On the first page, even before the prologue, we learn that Ruth Sternberg is “The First Mother of Mommy Blogging.” That is, she was the first major blogger to rise to prominence for publicly detailing motherhood in all its joys and agonies. Of course, her main topic of discussion was her daughter Abbie who, at 18, has had quite enough. Upon learning that her mother plans to move her dying grandmother, Esther, into her home for her final days — and blog about it with the help of hidden web cameras — Abbie suggests a “vacation” to her grandmother.
She sweeps Esther off to Arizona, where she hopes to steal a few more precious moments of privacy before her grandmother passes away. Shortly thereafter, Ruth sets out to find Abbie and bring Esther home. Meanwhile, Abbie’s father, Justin, decides to show up to check on his daughter, and a documentary filmmaker, Eric, uses any means possible to track down Abbie to convince her to work with him on a film about her life.
Of course Abbie’s motives aren’t entirely noble; she wants to stick it to her mother almost as badly as she wants to spend some undocumented time with her beloved grandmother. But then, Ruth’s motives are equally complicated. Ruth loves Abbie, but is self-centered, and somehow never connects Abbie’s resistance to being written about with the possibility that she may have legitimate reasons to resent being treated like a character in her own life instead of as a real person with feelings. Ruth is too busy nursing a wound, the one secret she does keep, to consider her daughter’s feelings.
When the novel works, it works because the main conflict is believable and well-conceived. The free-spirited mother and her normalcy-craving daughter are characters we’ve seen before: think book-to-film adaptations such as Terms of Endearment, Mermaids, or even back to Stella Dallas. The recurrence in pop culture of the mother-daughter role reversal, in varying degrees of extremity, is proof of its power to captivate us when it’s done well. Rizzo’s use of mommy blogging as a source of conflict wrests a wry smile of appreciation from the reader; this, and her commitment to keeping things (mostly) light refresh what might otherwise have been boilerplate in substance if not execution.
Among the book’s other attributes is Rizzo’s careful ear for voice. Her confident handling of dialogue means that her characters, when they’re speaking, “sound” different from one another. Ruth and Abbie’s alternating chapters are different in tone and register as well as in content.
Notwithstanding voices and personalities of Abbie and Ruth, other characters lack presence. Justin, Abbie’s father and Ruth’s formerly beleaguered spouse turned New Age, yoga-teaching, chi-balancing ex-husband, contributes little to either the atmosphere or the plot. Eric the filmmaker literally stalks Abbie in order to goad her into working with him, but is supposed to be an acceptable love interest for her because he’s extremely good-looking and hey, a nice guy behind all his creepy stalking and refusal to accept Abbie’s adamant “no”.
Indeed, these characters might work better in a play, where the immediacy of the presentation and/or talented actors might make us suspend our skepticism long enough to accept them first and analyze them later. In a novel, they ring false. The borderline farcical feel of the plot demands the anchor of characters we can believe in.
While these drawbacks weaken any dramatic impact the resolution might have had, Famous Baby is really about having a bit of fun, anyway. This explains why things tie up a little too neatly at the end: there’s not that much to tie up, and we’re not meant to be left with much to puzzle out. Though the book does not impart the kind of satisfaction a reader feels upon seeing the elements of a more layered novel come together, there’s equally nothing to detract from the fact that Famous Baby is sufficiently enjoyable — as long as it lasts.