Tuesday, August 23, 2016

"Break in Case of Emergency," by Jessica Winter

Jessica Winter has a very fresh, very distinctive voice, as evidenced in her debut novel, “Break in Case of Emergency” (Knopf, 2016). There are three intertwining topics or themes (although the novel is only a tiny bit didactic, and mostly an unusual mixture of the satirical and the touching). First and foremost it is a novel about what it is like to realize, as one approaches and enters one’s thirties, that one is now irrevocably an adult. Friends Jen, Meg, and Pam were best friends in college and after, and still are, but their lives are diverging in some ways. Jen finds that her friends, whose money didn’t mean much when they were all in the same boat in college and starting off in New York, are now cushioned by family money in a way that publicist Jen and her teacher husband Jim are far from experiencing. Second, Jen is working for a sort of vanity philanthropy, in which a rich woman is using her huge divorce settlement to play at female-empowerment through her hazily focused, New Ageish foundation that is pretty much all talk and no action. Winter’s portrayal of the celebrity philanthropist, Leora Infinitas (not her original name, you will not be surprised to hear), is a very funny caricature; some of her minions are equally outrageously over the top. Jen of course sees through it all, but needs the job. The third theme is, in deep contrast to the parody of the second, very serious, touching, and at times sad: Jen and Jim are attempting to have a child, but experience both infertility and miscarriage. As with so many coming-of-age-in-New-York stories (and there are SO many of those), the city is not only a backdrop but almost a character in its own right, as I have observed about other New York-based fiction, most recently on 8/17/16. The real pleasure of this novel is, as I started off by saying, the author’s voice and style, which feels true, and yet humorous, and yet wistful, and yet again filled with pizazz that grabs the reader’s attention.
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