Coffee and Kung Fu

Separation Anxiety
by Karen Brichoux
(New American Library, $12.95, PG) ISBN 0-451-21199-5
Karen Brichoux’s debut novel, Coffee and Kung Fu, was a pleasant surprise – Chick Lit with a gimmick, specifically the heroine’s penchant for letting Jackie Chan’s Kung Fu movies guide her decisions about love and work. Brichoux’s sophomore effort offers further proof that the author’s talent could take her beyond the Chick Lit market, but the plot’s unrelenting grimness make it a difficult read at times.  

Wichita Gray and Jonah LiaKos have been best friends for more than 20 years. In fact, best friends is an inadequate description; they are Siamese Twins, soul mates, or whatever you call two people who have taken care of each other since they were both young. Without parental support – Jonah’s low-income, single mother had too many children and Wichita’s parents were too busy making each other miserable – the two were inseparable throughout their small town Illinois childhood. As soon as Wichita could scrape up enough money to buy a wreck of a used car, they escaped to Chicago, where they now work together in a small art museum.  

But these days Wichita is feeling restless and dissatisfied. She’s tired of being half of a duo and wants to put some distance between herself and Jonah. But as she says, you can divorce a husband or break up with a boyfriend; how do you end a friendship? Jonah doesn’t seem to understand why she is so unhappy with the relationship that kept them sane for so long, and even Wichita isn’t sure why she feels such a strong urge to cut herself free. But one impulsive, cruel act finally accomplishes her goal. While Wichita tries to figure out why she feels guilty instead of relieved, a family crisis sends her back to her hometown. There, echoes of the past and surprising new revelations help Wichita realize that instead of breaking loose from Jonah, she now needs him more than ever.  

Throughout the novel, Wichita’s first-person narrative alternates present events with past memories. There’s no logical linear progression to these memories; incidents in the present trigger flashbacks to her childhood with Jonah. It’s an intriguing, effective literary technique that helps the reader understand Wichita’s less than rational behavior, but it has the unintended effect of distancing the reader from Jonah, since most of his interactions with Wichita take place in the past.  

And what a miserable past! While Jonah suffers primarily from neglect, Wichita’s mother is almost unbearably cruel to her own child. Wrapped up in her own unhappiness, she provides no warmth or caring, only threats and rebukes. Wichita’s father is emotionally distant, and the only marital interactions Wichita observes are antagonistic. No wonder she’s wary of remaining close to Jonah. After a while, the reader feels drained by the flashbacks that remind Wichita of her desolate childhood, and yearns for even a touch of the wry humor that Brichoux demonstrated in her debut novel.  

There is a growing subset of young female authors whose novels portray heroines rising above their dysfunctional families to find at least some measure of happiness. Lisa Tucker, Jennie Shortridge and Erica Orloff are just a few of the authors, like Brichoux ,who provide a welcome measure of relief from brainless Chick Lit. While it remains to be seen if Brichoux has staying power, Separation Anxiety clearly proves that Coffee and Kung Fu was no one-hit wonder.  

--Susan Scribner

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