David and Violet Parry are supposed to be living the good life. He is a successful music executive, and Violet is now a stay-at-home mom after years of being a successful television writer. They have a lavish lifestyle, a beautiful toddler and a gorgeous home that Violet has just finished re-modeling, but both are deeply unhappy. Violet, once a witty and well-read take-charge dynamo, has sunk into a deep depression and only wanders out of her fog long enough to start making self destructive decisions and to find herself in a relationship with often down and out musician Teddy Reyes. David acts out by belittling his wife and lamenting the fact that all of his needs aren’t being fully met to his demanding expectations.
Meanwhile David’s diabetic sister Sally is living her life on the margins of her brother’s success and pines for the days when he was a doting brother. In her mid-thirties she is desperate to get her life in order, and for her that means getting a man. Always scheming, she thinks that the best way to go about it is to meet and marry someone who is on the verge of of being a breakout success. When she meets Jeremy, a sports writer who has become known for being able to predict the winner of sports matches, she thinks she’s found her man, but gets a lot more than she ever bargained for in a relationship.
I really loved this book, and I think that’s in large part because of the compassionate way that Maria Semple treated and lovingly developed her characters who are quite frankly, obnoxious. As I started reading the first chapters, and was introduced to Violet and her co-horts I was appalled. They were self-absorbed, prejudiced, snobs or social climbers, or social climbing snobs whose decision making and actions were completely reprehensible. They have too much, think too little, and take everything for granted; and just as I was wondering if I would be able to stand these people for the course of the book a very strange thing happened, I started rooting for them. I wanted them to be able to work through their issues and make their family lives work and for them to communicate, and for their relationships to be stronger.
Everyone was so interesting and complex that one moment I would be totally down on them and in the next instant I would gain some perspective on where they were coming from and be on their side. I railed at David on Violet’s behalf and then turned around and totally wanted Violet to get herself together so she wouldn’t lose the man who still loved her, no matter how flawed that love had become. I alternated between hoping Sally would land herself a husband and thinking that she didn’t deserve one. Teddy, Violet’s sometime lover, is both repulsive and utterly charming and all in all I felt like he was, along with the rest of them, doing the best that he possibly could. It’s wonderful when you have enough depth to really get a handle on a character and to like them though they may be very, very flawed.
One of the other great things about this book is that you really get a chance to see the flavor of L.A. and some of the communities and people that can be encountered. The house and property descriptions, Violet buying excessively expensive chocolates and Hermes scarfs to gift to sales people, the over the top yoga retreat which David attends to find himself, and the independent child classes Violet attends with her daughter are all humorously exposed and explored. The situations are hilarious and absurd, but also representative of a certain lifestyle. I liked to see the characters moving within their different environments. Semple also peppers her stories with every day problems and illness which have to be dealt with such as diabetes, Asperger’s, drug use and depression to name a few.
This book and its characters are memorable ones and they still continue to stick with me and come to the top of my list of books that I recommend, especially if you like great characterizations and drama. It had a bit of mystery as well because I wanted to see how they would all end out and there were a variety of possibilities that I would have been okay with, which is nice. But I like the one I got too!
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