Few authors of contemporary novels provide laugh-out-loud moments more reliably than British writer Marian Keyes. Her latest release, Angels, presents the perfect set-up for humor - a quiet, well-mannered Irish woman confronted by the craziness of Los Angeles as she tries to recover from a broken heart. The chuckles are plentiful, but the story and characters don’t have as much depth as previous Keyes books, notably Rachel’s Holiday. Ultimately, the reader is left with a charming but forgettable beach read.
Keyes’ fans will already be familiar with Maggie Walsh Garvan if they’ve read about her sisters Claire (in Watermelon) and Rachel (in the aforementioned Rachel’s Holiday). Maggie, the calm, well-behaved one of the five Walsh girls, is married to her high-school sweetheart and has a respectable career in Dublin. But Maggie’s marriage to Paul “Garv” Garvan has suffered several setbacks, and things between them are strained. An unfortunate slip of the tongue by Garv causes Maggie to accuse him of infidelity. When he doesn’t deny her charge, and she is unceremoniously fired from her job, Maggie decides to chuck it all and visit her best friend Emily in Southern California. A month of sunshine and beautiful people should help her gain some perspective on the total mess that is her life.
But Maggie’s plans to relax are challenged almost immediately upon her arrival. Emily, an aspiring screenwriter, is at her wits’ end as she prepares to make a pitch to a high-powered movie executive. Maggie is cast as Emily’s “assistant” to make her friend look important, and she witnesses first-hand the lunacy that goes on in a town where everyone from the airport customs officer to the ice cream man are trying to break into The Business. Maggie also becomes involved in various ways with Emily’s friends, including Troy, who cheerfully promises that he’s “bad news” and Lara, Maggie’s first honest-to-goodness lesbian. In the shadows lurks the knowledge that Shay Delaney, Maggie’s one adolescent fling, is also in California working for an independent film company. And while Maggie is sure that her marriage is beyond repair, she’s still crushed when her suspicions are confirmed that Garv is indeed seeing another woman.
The culture shock of Los Angeles seen through no-nonsense Maggie Walsh’s eyes is a can’t miss proposition, and Keyes has loads of fun skewering the SoCal obsession with appearances and show business. Can you really use hemorrhoid cream to tighten up wrinkles? It’s so bizarre that it must be true. And are there really people like Emily’s friend Justin, who readily admits to specializing in movie roles where he is the “expendable fat guy”? She can’t be making this stuff up.
Keyes also poignantly captures the many small moments that constitute a loving marriage, as Maggie reminisces about the couple’s journey from happy newlyweds to near-strangers. From the use of shared code words to small caring gestures, Keyes understands that it’s the simple things, not the jewelry or flowers, that bind a couple together. Maggie’s gradual disclosure of the setbacks that destroyed her marriage is heartbreaking and slightly disturbing. Garv is never presented as a villain; in fact Maggie probably takes too much of the blame for their separation, but I wish the reader saw more than a few glimpses of him.
Maggie is a sympathetic heroine, but the sad truth is that her “maintenance-level dysfunctional” sisters, Claire and Rachel, were better qualified to be the narrators of their own stories. Maggie is just too normal to be fully engaging. Her attempts to become a swinging Californian are obviously doomed to fail. Her major accomplishment, other than ruminating about her failed marriage, is discovering stores to shop in where she won’t be insulted by snooty Rodeo Drive salespeople. Her lost job is barely alluded to, and she seems to have no concerns about her career prospects when she returns to Ireland.
Maggie’s gentle narration gives the novel a leisurely pace, but it does pick up in the last 100 pages when her clueless parents and two younger sisters come to California for a visit. I hope Keyes is planning to write the stories of free-spirited, spacey Anna Walsh and unapologetically hedonistic Helen Walsh - their voices deserve to be heard too.
While it’s amusing to watch Maggie master such Californian phrases as “I’m taking some downtime,” I miss the British/Irish slang that populated Keyes’ previous novels. I hope her next book takes place across the Atlantic, where her heroines belong.