My last two trips to New York City have been marked by very good luck. Both in March 2007 and this past April, I was blessed to be part of musical ensembles invited to perform at Carnegie Hall. During both of my stays, I was able to see a few Broadway shows and the timing of both trips coincided with Tony-nominated revivals of two of my all-time favorite shows, both Stephen Sondheim musicals: Company and A Little Night Music (Catherine Zeta-Jones is currently nominated for Lead Actress in a Musical).
Recently, I visited Nite Swimming for the first time. Sherry reviewed and was giving away a copy of Maria Semple’s debut novel and it was her introduction of the main character, Violet, that convinced me to read This One is Mine. She described Violet as “adrift” and “on a mission of self-destruction” even though, by all outward signs, she has everything: Successful husband, beautiful daughter, wealth, gorgeous home, luxurious Los Angeles lifestyle. Yet Violet is out of her element in Southern California.
The thing I found most intriguing about Violet was the fact that she, like me, loves Sondheim. Happily, I won the copy of This One is Mine that Sherry was offering and am now “paying it forward” by gifting that like-new copy of the book to one of my readers (details below)!
David Parry is a driven rock-band manager who has called his wife, Violet, “Ultra” since he first met her. More than a play on words, the nickname is an homage to Violet’s strength and talents. She can, in David’s eyes, handle any crisis, meet any challenge. But lately, he hasn’t been calling her “Ultra” very often. David feels Violet has changed, let him down. She isn’t taking care of things — including him — in the expert, efficient way she used to.
Violet gave up her own career as a television writer and, after overseeing the renovation of their fabulous home, has devoted herself to raising their toddler daughter, Dot. She of course has help: A housekeeper/nanny, LadyGo, who wears outrageously inappropriate t-shirts, mangles the English language, and cares for Dot when Violet can no longer handle even being in the same room with her beautiful young daughter. Indeed, Violet views motherhood as “the thing that had finally felled” her as she finds herself living out the lines of one of Sondheim’s greatest songs, Losing My Mind, from Follies:
Sometimes I stand in the middle of the floor
Not going left. Not going right.
David’s younger sister, Sally, is a self-absorbed, insulin-dependent diabetic, and former ballerina whose career was derailed by the partial amputation of one of her toes. After a series of failed relationships, Sally is scheming to meet and marry a sportswriter whom she is convinced is on the brink of major celebrity. She is certain that he can provide her with the security she craves — and do something about the debt she amassed, but cannot pay off, trying to help her last boyfriend launch an ill-conceived business.
Teddy is an unkempt, sometimes-employed musician and addict who uses racial epithets with abandon and has a crazy girlfriend with whom he claims he is going to break up. But it is Teddy who catapults Violet out of her suburban stupor and inspires her to risk everything in search of what she perceives is missing from her outwardly-perfect life.
A funny thing happened between the first and last pages of This One is Mine: I ended up caring about and rooting for characters who, at the outset, appeared to be shallow and unredeemable.
The book opens with David surveying his kingdom: There is a pine forest to his left, the Pacific Ocean to his right, and his pool shimmers, as do the Stone Canyon Reservoir and the sea, both of which he can see from his window. But there is a furry brown thing floating in the jacuzzi, and it upsets David terribly that Violet neither notices nor seems to care when he points out to her that, in all likelihood, a dead gopher is contaminating their spa. She promises to have the jacuzzi drained and disinfected, but does not share David’s outrage. Semple quickly reveals that there’s a lot more wrong with these folks’ lives than the fact that a dead gopher is destroying the idyllic, pristine views from the architectural showplace in which they reside.
Semple’s background as a former writer for television series such as Arrested Development and Ellen serves her well. She understands the places she writes about, and cleverly juxtaposes the absurd realities of day-to-day life in Southern California against the emotional roller coaster Violet is riding. But Semple also recognizes that Violet could be experiencing the same crisis of spirit no matter where she lived, so she exercises restraint, never allowing the setting to become more than a supporting player in her relationship drama.
Violet has, like so many women, lost her way after altering her lifestyle and, consequently, self-image. Her husband treats her differently, too, and she has lost her self-confidence. So she is vulnerable when she happens upon Teddy, a bass player who can’t scrape together $1,600 to have his car repaired so that he can make it from one paying gig to another.
Continuing to read This One is Mine as Violet’s relationship with Teddy comes to fruition is like watching one car veer into the lane occupied by another vehicle on the 405 freeway while both are traveling at 70 miles per hour: It is obvious that a tragedy is unfolding, although the extent of the damage is not yet discernible. Violet’s dalliance with Teddy grows so increasingly, yet inexplicably reckless that I was tempted to not finish reading the book, because I had come to care about Violet and did not want to know the depths to which Semple was willing to allow her protagonist to descend. But it was like watching those vehicles in motion on the freeway: I could not look away because I had to know how much devastation Violet’s life and the lives of those around her would sustain, and, ultimately, who among them, if any, would survive. It is clear from the outset that her relationship with Teddy could not last, but what about her marriage?
David, meanwhile, is angry, disappointed, and bent on revenge when he embarks alone on a yoga weekend he and Violet had planned to enjoy together. His experiences there, especially his evening in the sweat lodge, are hilarious, but conclude with a surprising plot twist that instills new respect for David in the reader and magnifies the jeopardy into which Violet’s choices have thrown her family. The Los Angeles Times review described it best: “Semple turns what could have been a by-the-numbers character into a contradictory and strangely compelling man right before our eyes.”
Initially, it is most difficult to become attached to or care about the welfare of narcissistic, self-pitying Sally. Because she has no moral center, she knows no self-imposed limits. She will manipulate anyone and any situation to acquire what Violet, ironically, already possesses and is willing to risk when she befriends and enters into a relationship with Teddy. Sally engages in shockingly despicable behavior on a regular basis. But it becomes clear that her motivations are, at their core, no different than Violet’s.
Semple’s brilliance lies in her ability to place a group of characters who are, on the surface, largely repugnant and seemingly unsalvageable, in a setting — Southern California — where absurdities pass as everyday goals for a percentage of the inhabitants. Yet Semple skillfully evokes empathy with and compassion for them. As the story unfolds, Semple asks her readers to do what family members do all the time: Accept the characters with all of their flaws, forgive, and continue to care about them. She exasperates her readers and pushes them to the brink of abandoning Violet, David, Teddy, and, most of all, Sally, because of the foolish and morally repulsive choices they make, as well as the impact of those choices on their own lives and the lives of those they love. Just like those we love sometimes provoke and incense us, forcing us to question whether we can forgive, if not forget, and move forward in our relationships with them. Although Semple’s characters are drawn against a backdrop of ostentatious displays of prosperity, youth, fitness, and being “in” with the right crowd, their internal struggles are universal and resoundingly normal — and their actions, in some sneaky instances, remarkably honorable.
The story is only made richer if, like me, you share Violet’s love for all things Sondheim and are intimately familiar with all of the lyrics to and stories behind the Sondheim tunes mentioned. Knowing the story of Company is not a prerequisite to appreciating This One is Mine, but my four-decade love of that musical undeniably enhanced my appreciation of this poignant passage:
Driving Violet’s car home on the 405 early this morning, David had the freeway to himself. . . . He turned on the stereo. A CD was playing, something Violet must have been listening to on the way to the Shrine last night.
You’re always sorry,
You’re always grateful . . .
It was that Sondheim song she had wanted sung at their wedding. David couldn’t remember exactly what about the lyrics had made him so upset. It was some song where married men explain to a bachelor what it was like being married. David turned up the volume:
You’re always sorry.
You’re always grateful.
You hold her thinking,
“I’m not alone.”
You’re still alone.
Why look for answers
Where none occur?
You’ll always be
What you always were,
Which has nothing to do with,
All to do with her.
It had taken him long enough, but driving north on the 405, just past the Getty, David finally got Sondheim.
At the outset, This One is Mine appeared to be little more than a funny and entertaining story about superficial and vain people. But as the story progressed, it became clear that I had completely underestimated the richness and facets of the characters, especially Violet and Sally, and their ability to evoke an emotional response. After reading the last page, I could not just re-shelve the book and move on to another. I kept reconsidering the characters’ motivations, feelings, and my own reactions to their predicaments. What seemed, at first glance, to be yet another story about silly, self-involved people who take for granted a privileged lifestyle that very few can ever attain turned out to be thoughtful, compelling, and quite moving. Of course, I will never again listen to my beloved Sondheim collection without thinking of Violet, David, Sally, and, most of all, Teddy.
CONGRATULATIONS to Vicki at Reading at the Beach who won my copy of the book!
I read This One is Mine in conjunction with the 2010 Read ‘n’ Review Challenge.
Additional reviews of This One is Mine: