I knew these were rich-people problems. Only rich people could afford to complain about the lack of time they had to create still lifes of indoor flora and to read about Dadaists. Complaining about my rich-people problems made me feel whiny and spoiled and further separated me from my impoverished roots. I felt as hypocritical as the Dadaists themselves, who critiqued the materialistic bourgeoisie while making art that, like most art, only rich people had the resources to consume.
On the other hand, my problems weren’t exactly rich-people problems. Sure, rich people might complain about a lack of time to finish Dada homework, but not because they were busy working a minimum-wage job. Rich people might use their extra time to attend the new show at MoMA, or to network with Sophie, whose mother ran an arts residency and was looking for applicants from our graduating class, but I was trying to earn money to buy enough frozen single-serving lasagnas from Safeway to get myself through the week. In this way, I also felt alienated from my new peers, unable to be as smart or productive or connected as they were because I had to attend to my basic needs.
Reviewing John Irving’s Avenue of Mysteries for an Irish newspaper a couple of years ago, I found myself wondering: why are the titles of novels by fictional novelists always so mysteriously unconvincing? The protagonist of Avenue of Mysteries is Juan Diego, a globetrotting writer of Irvingesque stature; his most famous book is called A Story Set in Motion by the Virgin Mary. Encountering this, I thought: No commercial publisher would ever append so clunky a title to a popular book. My suspension of disbelief was shaken. Why, I wondered, couldn’t Irvingâthe man responsible for titles as instantly memorable as The World According to Garp and The Hotel New Hampshire come up with something better?
Having already proven herself master of the page-turner with her two previous novels, Brown succeeds in crafting a narrative that is compulsively readable — it goes down like candy — but she also creates an empathetic portrait of a father and daughter flailing after the loss of the magnetic center that held their family of three together, all the while offering insight into the darker sides of motherhood and a failing marriage. What elevates her novel beyond its use of familiar tropes and themes is a fine eye for detail, a mild social satire, a specificity of place, and two fully realized main characters longing for what they’ve lost.
If the phrase “class mom” doesn’t strike fear into your heart, you haven’t read Laurie Gelman’s new novel. Much as Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” exposed the seedy underside of the meatpacking industry, “Class Mom” exposes the underside of room parenting — i.e., volunteering to be the liaison between the parents and the teacher regarding class parties, field trips and countless other events too traumatizing to be accurately summarized here. But, unlike “The Jungle,” Gelman’s novel gives readers a lot to laugh about, including some very, very funny emails.