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Call for Music Critics and Essayists: If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by our quality readership.

Bookmarks: Brief reviews of new and overlooked books

Bookmarks: Brief reviews of new and overlooked books
[14 July 2006]

FAB places the reader at dinner opposite a woman who talks ceaselessly about herself, but rarely reveals anything genuine — leading the captive to wonder, ‘Is there substance here?’

FAB: A Novel
by Tiffany Anderson, Adrienne Carter, Tracy Richelle High, Kieran Bates Morrow
Doubleday, July 2006, 320 pages, $19.95 [paperback]

If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse gift will find a fitting place.
— Margaret Mead

So long as there are sisters and girlfriends, there always will be stories about their lives, labors, and loves. Many of the sometimes-rich, often-campy love-quest-to-love-nest narratives of literary and pop feminine fiction challenge the cultural identity politics that govern womanhood worldwide. In characters such as Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice) and Jo Marsh (Little Women), for example, authors explore the feminine experience through complex networks of actions and relationships that readers then interpret based on their own cultural identities. Because culture is not static, not every permutation succeeds. Many just reduce or homogenize femininity across diverse ethnic, religious, and regional experiences and translate as little more than creative gossip. Because a universal womanhood is, at best, a superficial one, the “gossip novel” fails at celebrating the feminine in the vein of Jane Austen, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Maya Angelou. If well-written, and done so with ease, wit, and candor, however, the more cosmetic narratives — which have created heroines such as Bridget Jones, Carrie Bradshaw, and Andy Sachs — capture readers’ hearts and even teach a few important lessons about life.

FAB: A Novel joins the modern gossip or fem-literature from the shared pen of co-authors Tiffany Anderson, Adrienne Carter, Tracy Richelle High, and Kieran Bates Morrow. In their premiere joint work, the authors introduce heroines Carolyn, Taylor, Roxanne, and Bianca: a quartet of African-American, Ivy League-educated 20-somethings living in New York and searching for contentment in themselves, their careers, and their romances. If the theme sounds familiar, it is. Change a few defining characteristics — age, ethnicity, education, profession — and these women could be Candace Bushnell’s famed Sex in the City quartet. Perhaps one of the most scrutinized authors of the genre, Bushnell seems to have “it”. Be “it” a keen perception of life as a single woman, a unique skill with language, a deep, personal connection with New York and its heroines or simply a mastery of storytelling, Bushnell’s stories shine and thus do her women.

Comparatively, FAB is lackluster. Initially, the stories captivate as they reveal the details of the character’s lives, but as the work progresses, Anderson, Carter, High and Morrow fall into a limiting “tell” rather than “show” pattern that informs the reader but does not engage her (or him) in a thoughtful dialogue with the text. Thus, the narrative — about learning to love, trust and honor yourself — quickly loses vitality and the characters become caricatures. Particularly lifeless are the countless choruses of “Ivy League” this and “Harvard” that where, had the writers instead chosen to educate the characters at SUNY, little about the novel directly would have changed. The most the reader gains by the authors’ choice of direct characterization is a set of prescribed norms by which to judge the heroines: if Ivy League-educated, then intelligent. Sadly, because the characters are somewhat narrow, the reader never becomes engaged to the point where such descriptors are useful. Instead, she proceeds with one eyebrow cocked, thinking sarcastically, “Gee, I wonder if they were Ivy League educated. Snore.”

At its core, FAB places the reader at dinner opposite a woman who talks ceaselessly about herself, but rarely reveals anything truly genuine — leading the captive to wonder, “Is there substance here?” The reader knows more about Bianca’s designer wardrobe, Roxanne’s career foes, Carolyn’s body-consciousness (this being the most genuine plotline), and Taylor’s love-hate relationship with her office than about how those things shape their possessors’ thoughts and behaviors. As anyone can imagine, this novel-length session of bragging and bitching wears on the reader. Luckily, those who can move beyond the above shortcoming might find the stories in FAB entertaining and even may relate to the themes explored (those pertaining to urban dating are particularly charming, though predictable). Loosely based on emails shared between the bi-costal authors, the daily trials of the New York lawyer (Taylor), struggling actress (Roxanne), advertising executive (Carolyn), and recently-relocated-to-Los Angeles assistant television publicist (Bianca) as they cope with work, love and money are amusing — neither uproariously or consistently funny, but witty enough to move you from page to page if you decide to read past part one, titled “Winter” (the novel then is organized into the remaining four seasons).

As a result of four (long-distance) literary voices melding into one, some patches of text are more engaging than others, thus creating a quilt-like effect where rich passages and dialogue bridge seemingly vast spans of more mundane event or detail listing. The narrative energy ebbs in the central chapters until, finally, each character experiences a shining moment: Bianca realizes a material life is an empty one; Carolyn learns to love herself; Taylor stops letting work rule her; and Roxanne opens herself to creating art rather than a career. In the end, the lessons are rich. The reader just has to pay a 300-page debt to earn them.

Not everyone who enters a bookstore is searching for a tugging, emotional, masterful or profound read, and thus FAB may have widespread commercial appeal. Occasional readers who more often are glued to American Idol, America’s Next Top Model, US Weekly, or any of the entertainment tabloids than to the pages of a book — but perhaps are looking for a good beach read — might just settle for FAB. For the reader looking to discover the next quintessential New York heroine, single heroine, 20- or 30-something heroine, career heroine, or other insert-trait-here heroine of contemporary literature, check the next title on the new releases shelf or perhaps even pass up a modern work in favor of a classic or two. And for the reader seeking a great, truly fab work of fiction (and/or fem-fiction) … best to continue your search on a shelf far, far away.

Graziella Morse Amazon

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