Shout Down the Moon

The Song Reader

Once Upon a Day
by Lisa Tucker
(Atria, $24, PG) ISBN 0-7434-9277-3
After bursting onto the scene with two remarkable novels for Simon & Schuster’s Chick Lit imprint, Downtown Press, Lisa Tucker moves to the S&S mainstream hardcover label Atria Books.  If anyone deserves this meteoric literary rise, it’s Tucker, whose trademark ability to mine deep emotional truths with her lyrical style is unparalleled.  However, I have to admit that Once Upon a Day is my least favorite of her three releases.  I admired her message but didn’t fully enjoy the story.  

Once Upon a Day opens in a remote area of New Mexico, where 23 year old Dorothea O’Brien lives in total seclusion with her widowed father Charles.  “We had a father who loved us,” Dorothea begins her narrative, but Charles O’Brien’s brand of love means completely forsaking the outside world – no television, no telephone, no school, no friends.  Dorothea accepts her father’s explanation that these extreme actions are taken for their own safety and security, but her older brother Jimmy has rebelled, renouncing their isolated existence in anger two years ago and moving to St. Louis.  When Jimmy’s regular postcards abruptly cease, Dorothea makes the momentous decision to leave home and find him.  The bus trip to Missouri isn’t too stressful, but once Dorothea arrives in St. Louis she is overwhelmed by everything that is new, loud and different.  Miraculously, the first person she meets is Stephen Spaulding, a former physician who has become a part-time cab driver after a senseless tragedy robbed him of everything he cherished.  Stephen becomes her guide and her friend, as well as the object of surprising new feelings.   

Once Dorothea and Stephen locate Jimmy, the story shifts backward in time to 1976 in Los Angeles, where a young, struggling actress named Lucy Dobbins catches the eye of wealthy, successful film director Charles Keenan.  After a whirlwind courtship, they marry.  Charles is an oddity in Hollywood – a highly idealistic, principled man who is fiercely protective of his young wife.  But when their idyllic lives are disrupted by violence, Charles becomes more and more irrational, and Lucy becomes increasingly self-destructive.   

It’s not difficult to divine the relationship between Dorothea, Lucy, Charles O’Brien and Charles Keenan, but the story doesn’t hinge on a surprise identity revelation.  Instead, the novel examines the ways that people deal with tragedy, and whether they’re able to move on or let the loss consume them.  It reminds us that one moment or one day can change the course of our lives, and that “charming coincidences” (Dorothea’s concept) may guide our fate.  As Tucker notes on her website, the characters in Once Upon a Day may lose their innocence, but they also have the ability to gain hope.   

From a literary standpoint, this is probably the most complex and thought-provoking of Tucker’s novels, but for pure enjoyment, it falls slightly short.  As a former geek, I love Tucker’s consummate ability to convey the miracle of two lonely people falling in love.  You can’t get much lonelier than a man who lost his family and a woman who has only interacted with three people in her life.  The scenes between Stephen and Dorothea are poignant, sweet, awkward and even occasionally amusing (odd, naïve Dorothea earnestly completing a quiz in a Dating for the Clueless book is priceless), but they are overtaken and eventually almost overshadowed by the charged, doomed love affair between Lucy and Charles.  The arc of their relationship is painful and frustrating to read.  And unlike the lower income, down-on-their luck characters of Tucker’s first two novels, The Song Reader and Shout Down the Moon, the wealthy film director and his suddenly rich wife are harder to identify with, even if they endure the same misfortunes as the rest of us mortals.  While their story broadens Tucker’s fundamental themes, I couldn’t empathize with them in the same way.   

Tucker utilizes low-key, somewhat abrupt endings to her novels – readers looking for lots of emotional catharsis and violin-accompanied drama should look elsewhere.  The stories and the characters resonate, however, and remain in consciousness days after the book is finished.  Tucker established herself as one of  my few “auto-buys” with The Song Reader, and although I have my quibbles with her latest release, she remains atop that short list.  

--Susan Scribner

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