Patty Jane's House of Curl

The Tall Pine Polka
by Lorna Landvik
(Ballantine, $23, G) ISBN 0-345-43317-3
Upon finishing Lorna Landvik's enchanting third novel, I found myself singing Ariel the Little Mermaid's song: "Wish I could be part of your world." Landvik is a natural born storyteller who has created a virtual paradise in the wilds of northern Minnesota. If you enjoyed Landvik's debut, Patty Jane's House of Curl, you won't want to miss this one. Once you enter Tall Pine, you will be reluctant to leave.

Indeed, our heroine Fenny Ness has no desire to leave Tall Pine. She was orphaned at nineteen when her beloved parents were killed while adventuring in Central America. Fenny needed no more proof that her parents' wanderlust was misguided. Her parents might have answered to the call of the wild, but since their death three years ago, Fenny listens to "the purr of the tame." She now runs a fishing and gift store, spending her spare time with the other regulars at The Cup O'Delight cafe.

Most of the members of this crowd are considerably older than Fenny, and they're all delightfully odd. There's Miss Penk and Frau Katt, the town's unabashedly lesbian couple. There's the quiet shoe salesman Pete, who toils in secret crafting beautiful shoes for the object of his unrequited love. There's Slim, the Vietnam Veteran, whose frequently crazy behavior actually makes a certain kind of sense. There's Mary, whose poetry is so atrocious that even the kind Minnesotans can't help making derogatory remarks under their breath. And there's Lee O'Leary, owner of the Cup O'Delight and Fenny's best friend. A large-hearted, big-boned heiress who fled from an abusive marriage years ago, Lee makes the best cup of coffee ever tasted while overseeing her flock. Every so often the residents of Tall Pine gather at Cup O'Delight for a special evening of debating, reciting, singing, dancing and whatever else strikes their fancy -- they call it a "Tall Pine Polka."

Then two things happen that shake up the peaceful existence of Tall Pine. First, Big Bill wanders into town. Half Native American and half Polynesian, he's a roving musician who is searching for his Native American family. Both Lee and Fenny immediately fall in love with him.

But the real excitement starts when a Hollywood scriptwriter and location scout visit Tall Pine, looking for a town in which to shoot a movie entitled "Ike and Inga." The scriptwriter catches sight of Fenny and immediately decides that she is the perfect person to play Inga, although she has never acted a day in her life. Fenny, the ultimate homebody, is horrified when, thanks to a strange set of circumstances, she actually ends up with the starring role. The Cup O'Delight regulars are only too happy to provide advice (both solicited and not) to the filming crew. The movie folks, meanwhile, can't believe that these ignorant people don't know that Hollywood is the center of the universe -- and don't care, either.

Tall Pine Polka starts with one of the most intriguing opening paragraphs in recent fiction it hooks you, then reels you in for the duration, with humor that is sometimes raucous and sometimes gentle, with occasional pathos, and with quirky characters that you come to love. The pace is sometimes slow, and the sentiments are frequently corny, but Landvik makes a believer out of the reader, just as the residents of Tall Pine teach those cynical, jaded folks from Hollywood a thing or two about life's priorities. Think of the corporate stooge played by Peter Reigert in the film Local Hero, when he confronts the natives of a small Scottish town. Think of Joel Fleishman in Northern Exposure, when he learns to live amongst the sweet insanity of Cicely, Alaska. Lorna Landvik mines the same territory, but with her own warmhearted, slightly offbeat style.

This book just missed a 5-heart rating by a hair. The romantic triangle among Lee, Fenny and Bill is resolved in a somewhat unconventional way. I was a tiny bit uncomfortable with the end result. Also, although the characters are warm and sensible, they turn out to be just as susceptible to the dreaded Big Misunderstanding as any traditional romance hero and heroine.

But despite those minor complaints, I loved this book. By the time I finished it, I was yearning for a Tall Pine Polka of my own -- a place where everyone loves and accepts me despite my faults, a place where people come together to celebrate the small joys of life. If you're lucky, you'll read The Tall Pine Polka and for a short time you will be part of that world as well.

--Susan Scribner

N.B. Landvik's second novel, Your Oasis on Flame Lake, is slightly darker and more reality-based than her other two, but it is still recommended.

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