I’ve followed Lisa Jewell’s career from her debut in 2000, and One-Hit Wonder is the first of her three releases that is substantial enough to review. Jewell’s first two novels, Ralph’s Party and Thirtynothing, were basic Brit Chick Lit - entertaining, predictable and light. One-Hit Wonder, however, has greater depth and is a more memorable, if sobering, read. Hang in there through the slow start and the occasional dangling participle, and you’ll find yourself hooked.
For one brief, shining moment in the mid 1980’s, Belinda “Bee” Bearhorn had a number one single and was touted as the British answer to Madonna. But the follow-ups to her hit “Groovin For London” bombed, and Bee quickly faded from the music scene. But one person never forgot her. Bee’s half-sister, Ana, was in awe of the young woman who buzzed in and out of her life for years, before disappearing altogether when Ana was a teenager. Bee wasn’t always nice to her, but they were connected in some indefinable way. So fifteen years later, when Bee is found dead in a small London apartment, Ana overcomes her timidity and ventures from her Devon countryside home to pack up Bee’s belongings.
As Ana goes through Bee’s few possessions, however, she realizes she needs to know more about her sister’s brief, mysterious life. Was Bee Bearhorn really just a one-hit wonder, or was there more to her? What, or who, was responsible for her untimely death? To discover these answers, Ana looks up Bee’s old friends and finds herself in the middle of the wild London celebrity scene. As she tries to figure out what forces drove Bee, Ana also learns a few things about her own hidden abilities. She may never again be the same quiet, awkward girl who left Devon just a few weeks ago.
One-Hit Wonder is at heart a fairly standard but well-told Ugly Duckling story. Tall, shy and insecure, Ana has been in a deep funk since her elderly, beloved father died. She’s been living at home at the mercy of her narcissistic mother, with neither social life nor career. The novel drags a bit in the beginning as Ana finds herself alone among Bee’s belongings. She’s just too depressed to be engaging. But things pick up speed rapidly when Ana meets Bee’s best girlfriend, Lol, and her former limousine driver, Flint. The two help Ana put together the puzzle pieces of her half-sister’s life and help her come out of her shell as well. Her attraction to the womanizing Flint is a big part of her emergence, but Ana also comes into her own as she takes charge of the exploration and finally finds a way to pay tribute to the sister she loved but never knew.
Interspersed with Ana’s story are occasional flashbacks to Bee’s life in London. Self-centered and foul-mouthed Bee somehow manages to come across as a tragic heroine because of her unique passion for life and enthusiasm for other people. Her scenes have much more energy than Ana’s, and the story of her downfall contains a few surprises. While Ana’s eventual triumph is gratifying, that pleasure is almost overshadowed by the sadness of Bee’s short, wasted life.
Readers who enjoy Nick Hornby and Marion Keyes should definitely give Lisa Jewell a try. Her first two novels are quick, fluffy reads. Ralph’s Party is a fun look at six twenty-somethings who come together in surprising ways at a party that one of them throws to win the girl he’s in love with. Thirtynothing is a “best buddies who don’t realize they’re perfect for each other” love story that is marred only by some unnecessary humiliation of the heroine. But One-Hit Wonder leaves both of those behind in the dust. Jewell has already proven she’s no flash in the pan, and she may be just starting to display the depth and breadth of her writing talent.