Patty Jane's House of Curl

The Tall Pine Polka

Welcome to the Great Mysterious
by Lorna Landvik
(Ballantine, $23, PG) ISBN 0-345-43881-7
I was less enthralled with Welcome to the Great Mysterious than with Lorna Landvik’s previous novels. Her trademark ability to blend humor with pathos is still apparent, but the homespun wisdom and quirky characters are muted. The "big city girl discovers what’s really important in life" theme is engaging, though, and it is still an enjoyable read.

Instead of Landvik’s typical wry third-person narrative, Great Mysterious is narrated by Geneva Jordan. What? You haven't heard of Geneva Jordan? Well, as she’ll readily tell you, she’s "star of stage, screen and television." She’s just finished a successful run in the title role of Mona, a musical based on DaVinci’s famous model. She doesn’t mind being called a diva, but she draws the line at prima donna. Okay, she’s a little self-centered, but that’s just part of being a star.

Then Geneva gets an urgent phone call from her twin sister Ann, who still lives in their Minnesota hometown of Deep Lake. Ann and her husband have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel to Europe, but only if they can find a babysitter for their son, Rich, a high-functioning Down's Syndrome teen. Geneva considers herself a good aunt (she sends frequent presents), but she is uncomfortable with the prospect of spending an entire month with her 13-year-old special needs nephew. She reluctantly agrees, however. Some time to sort out the next stage in her personal and professional lives might actually be a good idea, after an ugly breakup with her fiancé, a fellow-actor who professes to love Geneva's menopausal charms but likes to dally with young ingénues.

In Minnesota, Geneva learns how to be one of the "little people" again, and accepts the challenge of caring for Rich, whose limitations are outweighed by his sweetness. She also meets a businessman-turned-mailman, whose attentions can’t quite make her forget her charming but fickle ex-fiancé. Whenever Geneva needs help, she seeks solace in "The Great Mysterious," a book of life’s most difficult philosophical questions that Geneva and Ann created one rainy summer when they were eleven years old. The answers provided long ago by Geneva’s parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles make her reassess her priorities, and some answers recently contributed by Rich and his best friend Conrad provide the catalyst for a life-changing decision.

You have to appreciate a book that includes snippets from Mona's fictional lyrics ("Oh, what I wouldn’t do to get a piece a…that Mona Lisa!" ) and isn’t afraid to poke fun at the lifestyles of the rich and self-absorbed. You also have to like Geneva - underneath that selfish bluster, there’s a good but lonely person trying to emerge. Anyone who dares to give a name to their inner darkness ("Petunia") in a futile attempt to tame it can’t be all bad.

But I wish the distinction between big, bad New York and good, pure Minnesota had been a little less clear-cut. Everyone in Deep Lake is nice, even the adolescents. The interactions between Rich, Conrad (who has cerebral palsy) and their peers are unrealistic - the other teenagers are uniformly protective and appreciative of the two special youth. Come on, even in Minnesota there must be bullies and ignorant jerks, aren’t there? And while everyone is nice, they’re pleasant in a bland sort of way - there’s not enough distinctive Norwegian culture that flavored previous Landvik novels, other than a few wistful reminiscences of the spirited Grandma Hjordis.

It's becoming a mini-trend in romance and women's fiction to give the heroine a choice between a financially successful jerk and a nice but downwardly mobile guy. I'm in favor of this theme - it shows that women need men for love and support, not money - but again, the choice is so unambiguous in this novel that the ending is a no-brainer.

The bottom line is that Lorna Landvik is more entertaining when she writes about eccentric Minnesotans than when she focuses on one self-absorbed New Yorker who needs an attitude adjustment. Welcome to the Great Mysterious is not on the same sublime level as Patty Jane’s House of Curl or The Tall Pine Polka, but you could do a lot worse than watching Geneva Jordan finally get it right.

--Susan Scribner

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