Saturday, August 09, 2008

The Smart One by Ellen Meister

When I was a kid and started reading a lot, my mom would sometimes give me a treat and pick up a paperback for me at the grocery store. Sidney Sheldon was a staple, Mario Puzo made a few appearances, and, of course, I was filled with utter glee when she'd bring me a new Jackie Collins. Mom, she didn't read a lot, so she didn't really know what she was dropping into the hands of her daughter who only registered single digits in the "years old" category. Once, my grandfather sort of blew a minor fuse over it all and tried to force me to read The Three Musketeers or some other shit. I don't recall the exact book, I just knew it was damn dry and abstruse compared to Bloodlines and Lovers & Gamblers. And Mom? She wasn't too concerned about the content, as she was just content that I was reading. So I went back to my trash.

Eventually, I did get around to reading the more "dry" stuff, including Dumas, so that I wouldn't go through life as an ignorant dumbass, and even fell in love with a few of those highbrow things.

Now, as a writer, I generally throw myself headlong into sleaze and yearn to be even a fraction as good at "trash" writing as my childhood entertainers. (But I do also try to use a few less exclamation points than Queen Collins.) And as a reader, I can't say that my tastes have completely changed from those books that imprinted on me when I was so young. But I can, definitely, say that while I retain a deep love for the fast plots and thrilling characters of those books, I also did acquire a taste for things with a bit more heft, craft, and better prose. And what I love most of all is a book that can deliver the whole package -- entertainment and literary merit. Elmore Leonard. Chris Moore. Yeah, haters, Chuck Palahniuk.

All of this is my long and windy way of introducing you to the latest book that fires on all these cylinders.

The Smart One by Ellen Meister. Leave it to me to make a book review all about me, huh? But that's the thing about a great book -- it does become personal to you. And when I review movies or television shows on here, I do so under the assumption that you've probably already seen the show, so I can go into picky detail and make allusions to specifics. But who the fuck wants that in a book review when the joy of reading a book is discovering all those fun things on your own?

And believe me, The Smart One is loaded with plenty of fun details. The plot centers on Bev Bloomrosen, the middle child in a triumvirate of sisters. To find her niche in the family, Bev carves out her role as the smart sister, while her older sister Clare is the beauty and her younger sister Joey is the wild one. When her parents are out of town and they request that Bev stay in their house to help oversee the selling of a neighbor's property, it starts a series of crazy events. Bev's old flame comes back to town just as the sisters make a grisly discovery of an old corpse stuffed in a drum, practically in their own backyard.

That's the setup. But within this framework, Meister delivers witty repartee, hilarious hijinks, plenty of action, some steamy sex, a dizzying romance, and, obviously, a murder mystery. Well, that sounds pretty damn entertaining right there, huh? So what the fuck more do you want?

Personally, I'd be pleased with a book like that. But Meister doesn't stop there. She gives us lucid, compellingly readable yet polished prose. She gives us beautiful symbolism and even slips in clever references to a beloved classic that she's updating. And, mostly, she doesn't give us characters so much as people. People who'll drive you nuts, and people you'll fall in love with.

There are times during certain TV shows or movies -- or series of books -- where the writers/directors will manage to deliver enough that they gain my trust. Then, they can take me around unexpected corners and I don't feel manipulated. Instead, I'm delighted. It takes an awful lot of skill for those writers to get me to that point where I'm putty in their hands. But by the end of The Smart One, Meister had me as her bitch.

It's the kind of book I'd have been delighted to tear through as a kid if my mom had brought it home for me. But it's also got enough intelligence and elegance so that my grandfather wouldn't have blown a fuse.


Ellen said...

God! I'm blowing this up and framing it ... but not before I send a copy to my mom, my editor, my agent and everyone who made fun of me in elementary school.

I may also carry around a copy in wallet.

Thanks, Susan!


Beth said...

I couldn't agree more, but you said it more eloquently than I did!! Susan Meister hit it with The Smart One!

Beth said...

You said it far better than I did in my review! Ellen Meister hit it with the Smart One

Ellen said...

Thanks so much, Beth!