Ladies with Options by Cynthia Hartwick
(Berkley, $12.95, G) ISBN 0-425-17823-4
Just in time to beat the winter blahs is this wisecracking, fast-paced story of the Mostly Methodist Club, (member Debra Cohen making up the “mostly”) who take charge of their lives and their money and make a fortune in the stock market. The fact that they are mostly middle-aged and mostly Minnesota housewives is no barrier. And if you think Jennifer Crusie writes too slowly, grab this book. Snickers are guaranteed.

The action begins at one of the ladies’ monthly meetings. Two events occur. First is the arrival of Mary Maitland with a young woman in tow -- Skye Terrell, college student on probation for trashing a slimeball frat-boy’s room. Skye’s light pink hair shocks the group, but in typical reticent Minnesota fashion, nobody mentions it. Nobody but Deb, the ex-Marine-turned hairdresser, who takes one look and voices what’s on everyone’s mind:

“Holy Cripes! What’s with the hair?” When everyone turned to her, Deborah added, directly to Skye, “I mean, what’s the plan, kid? You gonna sneak into the state fair disguised as cotton candy?” And then, to her outraged fellow members, she added, “What? You didn’t notice?”

But Skye’s appearance is the lesser of two shocks the ladies will get that night. The last to arrive is club member Gladys Vaniman, fiftyish spinster librarian, who has read an article in Forbes magazine. An article in which she’s discovered that, after thirty-some years as a dedicated, hardworking librarian, she’ll have eight thousand dollars in savings and four hundred twenty-three dollars a month in retirement income. So much for those Happy Golden Years.

It’s Mary, the fortyish, attractive, childless housewife, who cautiously offers an idea. She proposes that the ladies pool their savings, say fifteen hundred dollars each, and find some investments. And so the Mostly Methodist Club morphs itself into the Larksdale Ladies Independence Club. With a cartload of Midwestern sensibility and more daring than they ever dreamed of, these ladies are about to create some changes, changes that will ultimately affect not only their own individual lives, but the entire town of Larksdale.

Their first lesson arrives via the story’s narrator, Sophia Peters. Sophia is a law student in Chicago and the daughter of Lizzy, club member. After “six weeks of listening to know-nothing men shoot their mouths off”, as Skye puts it, the ladies are no further along in their plan. But Sophia, home for Christmas vacation, passes along a tidbit she’s read from a hot stockpicker: “Invest in what you know”. And, as she points out, “No man alive knows as much about shopping malls as you all do.”

Well. No sooner said than done, and no better place to do “market research” than at the Grand Mall of Minnesota. As Sophia puts it, “when you think about Minnesota winters, indoor shopping malls are a lot like caves where ten thousand or so people can keep warm by burning up their savings.” (There’s also a great pun about Grand Mall seizures, but never mind.) Tall, shy Dolly discovers an Earth&Nature Store selling rocks for twelve bucks apiece, and the rest of the ladies discover Rip Stop (multicolored down jackets, worn exactly twice by their fashion-conscious owners). Their initial investments quickly become a moneymaking reality. And when Skye puts her computer-nerd talents to work and comes up with a fledgling company named Microsoft, well, the Ladies are off to the races.

But success breeds its own problems, as the Ladies will find out in various ways. Sophia returns to Larkspur as their part-time lawyer, leaving behind a Big Career in New York and any form of a love life (or so she thinks). Good thing. Under her somewhat bewildered legal care, the Ladies will face abusive husbands, sanity hearings, and the evil machinations of competitors. But there is lots of good stuff along the way. And there’s more than a touch of romance, often in unexpected places.

Each of the Larkspur Ladies is a well-developed character in her own right, and being seen through Sophia’s eyes is an equalizer. The most interesting to me was Deborah, the wisecracking, tough-as-nails ex-Marine, who had joined up “just after they had declared they wanted women, but well before they had figured out what to do with them”. Like many outwardly unflappable women, she has a vulnerable core, and steel reserves when the chips are down.

The author doesn’t hesitate to poke gentle fun at pop icons, either, as when Sophia describes a parking lot on a winter night: “It was somehow romantic. Like snow falling on Civics.” Who could resist? Not me.

If you are in the mood for an endearingly funny story that might just have you laughing out loud, find yourself a copy of Ladies With Options and settle in for a happy night’s reading. Hot chocolate and warm blanket optional, but in homage to those Minnesota winters, I’d highly recommend it. Enjoy!

--Cathy Sova

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