Erica Orloff’s debut novel shows a great deal of promise but is too slight to be truly satisfying. I liked her tough-talking anti-heroine, but felt as if I had walked into the middle of her story, caught just a glimpse and then moved on. However, I give the novel credit for taking me away from a lousy Midwestern winter to the heat of southern Florida.
Cassie Hayes, by her own admission, is a prime bitch. She drinks too much, eats too little, swears like a sailor and isn’t coherent until she’s mainlining caffeine. But she is a damn good editor for West Side Publishing, the small company her friend Lou runs in Boca Raton. And despite her faults, one of the company’s major authors, Michael Pearton, is madly in love with her. Although he lives in England and the two have never met face-to-face, they share fascinating conversations and steamy phone sex. Cassie, gun-shy about love, refuses Michael’s invitation to visit. Why ruin a perfectly good fantasy by attempting a relationship that’s doomed to fail?
Then Lou offers Cassie the literary opportunity of a lifetime. Reclusive author Roland Riggs, whose first and only novel is still required reading in most high schools, has finally produced a sequel after more than thirty years of silence. Not only does he want West Side to publish the book, he has personally requested that Cassie come to his home on Sanibel Island and edit it. Cassie is reluctant to leave her home and her beloved father, an Alzheimer’s victim who lives in a nearby nursing home, but she realizes that this is an offer she can’t refuse.
But once she arrives at Riggs’ island paradise, Cassie learns that editing is going to be the least of her problems. The house is full of cats, birds and free-ranging rabbits, presided over by a beautiful housekeeper named Maria whose spicy cooking causes Roland to keep a 6-month supply of Tums on hand at all times. Roland isn’t very forthcoming with his novel, and seems to be testing Cassie to see if she is worthy of reading it. Cassie can’t help growing impatient. Her father is ill and her heartless mother is circling like a vulture waiting for her inheritance. Michael keeps insisting that Cassie meet him in person. A tabloid reporter tracks Cassie down, claiming to have some dirt on Roland Riggs that will blow his reputation out of the water. Is it any wonder she needs more tequila and a large dose of Xanax?
In a very brief 250 pages, the 33-year-old cynic describes the life-changing experience of spending a bizarre week with the Salinger-esque Riggs. At times the poor-little-tough-girl act wears a bit thin, but generally Cassie is a smart, competent and sympathetic character. It’s harder to get a handle on Riggs and the object of his unrequited love. They both feel more like symbols than characters so it’s difficult to appreciate how he motivates Cassie to finally take a chance on love. Several other secondary characters, especially the tabloid reporter and Cassie’s mother, are hampered by the book’s brief length, and aren’t allotted enough time and space to make a lasting impression.
A few plot twists, including a major surprise at the end, keep the pace moving, as does Cassie’s brutal honesty with both enemies and friends (To the tabloid reporter, Cassie has this to say: “I believe in genital mutilation as a matter of principle.” To her mentor/substitute father, Lou: “If you change a single word of [the manuscript], I’ll have your testicles.”) Orloff, who has worked in the publishing industry, definitely knows the business, including the prima donna authors who complain that their jacket photos aren’t big enough and desperate would-be authors with bizarre ideas. She has a smart, snappy style that is very readable.
But the bottom line is that, despite attempts to address weighty themes such as Love, Grief and Loss, the book doesn’t have enough substance to make it memorable. You can read it in an hour and quickly move on. I get the feeling Orloff is capable of much more. Whether or not she’ll find it with Red Dress Ink is debatable, but she certainly adds some color to the line for those of us who are tired of desperate single girls looking for love. Cassie Hayes stares love in the face and dares it to get past her walls, and you have to admire her attitude.