I almost didn’t pick up Patricia Marx’s new novel Starting From Happy because its spine looked like a traditional “classic” book spine at first. Upon closer inspection, I realized it was a bunch of broken eggs in egg cups, and this intrigued me. I think that could sum up my entire reading experience: the book intrigued me. Lately I’ve been feeling pretty lukewarm about books (I tend to go through periods of near-burnout like this about once a year, but this one has lasted for a few months now…something you can probably tell by how spotty my posts have become of late), and this is the first book I’ve been able to get through in a while.
Perhaps its playful form deserves the credit for that. Marx writes the novel in “chaplettes” — super-mini chapters that range in length from a page to a single word (take Chaplette #73 as an example — it reads, simply, “Ahhh.”). Their short length made this book an easy read for me. I kept thinking, Okay, I’ll just finish one more and then I’ll stop reading for now. But then 17 chaplettes later, I’d still be reading. Oh, and did I mention the drawings? There are drawings. Twice there is a drawing of a kumquat. On several occasions there are pie charts. There are sketches of lingerie (the main character, Imogene, is a lingerie designer), notes characters wrote to each other, and all manner of other delightful drawings.
Since Marx has written for The New Yorker and Saturday Night Live, her style is accordingly humorous. Sometimes her humor takes the form of metafiction (she includes herself in the novel as a character named Patty), and other times it comes out in satire and/or irony. All that being said, I think one of the things I was most interested in was the fact that Imogene is an infinitely prickly character [PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD!!], a trait perhaps best illustrated in Chaplettes 617 and 618. When Wally, Imogene’s longterm partner (of approximately 60 years by the novel’s end…and these chaplettes are the novel’s end) asks her who the love of her life is, the narration reads:
Imogene did not say so, but it unsettled her to acknowledge that she did not have a love of her life (214).
Throughout the novel, Imogene remains impervious to Wally’s excessively (and often sweetly) romantic nature. It’s not hard to imagine that this might put some readers off. I mean, even I (a super-generous, overly-patient reader, at times) got annoyed with Imogene on several occasions. She’s kind of selfish and distant, and not always what some might call “ethical.” But that makes her pretty “real” when I think about it.
If you notice, I’ve tagged this as “Chick Lit” but I have to admit that I’m not sure it fits nicely into that category. In fact, I think it defies it on the most significant level: it denies the reader true love. Or love. Or even lukewarm like. Imogene doesn’t want to get married (and never does — thank goodness Marx didn’t deliver a golden-years marriage borne of an elderly Imogene’s sudden epiphany on how she should have married Wally far sooner, since he really is the one great love in her life…or somesuch nonsense) and she doesn’t want to have children. And when she does have kids with Wally (the first of whom may or may not be an accident, the second of whom may or may not have been adopted in China…I suspect both to be true) she doesn’t ever seem to really like those kids. She sort of seems like one of those people who accepts whatever life throws their way, but would have liked for there to have been more. In other words, this book refuses the kind of reading a lot of people might be seeking — it doesn’t glamorize love, parenthood, or life. It’s not a tragedy, and while it’s a comedy, it’s not a story of extraordinary love. In fact, I think it’s a story of ordinary love. And I love that about it.
GOOD FOR: Readers who like lots of distractions, fans of random-ness, people who like to see the heteronormative love story disrupted (rent, torn asunder, &c.) and anyone who has been having trouble getting through a book recently.
BAD FOR: People who like highly-structured fiction, anyone looking for a “happily ever after” kinda love story, and people who are offended by the mere suggestion that not all people would enjoy being parents.