Making Minty Malone

Out of the Blue by Isabel Wolff
(Red Dress Ink, $12.95, PG) ISBN 0-373-25024-X
Harlequin’s Red Dress Ink line must be gaining momentum if it is able to attract established authors like Isabel Wolff, who has already had two successful Brit Chick Lit novels published in the U.S. Wolff’s previous book, The Making of Minty Malone, was one of the better efforts of the early post-Bridget Jones genre, but I found Out of the Blue to be disappointing. Its outrageous, dark humor couldn’t compensate for a lifeless plot and a clueless heroine.

Said heroine, Faith Smith, is an expert at denial and rationalization. At her 15th anniversary dinner party, she takes stock of her situation and decides she’s very happy. Unfortunately, her husband Peter is stressed out from work pressures and has taken to sleeping in a separate bedroom, but that’s okay, Faith has to get up at 3 a.m. for her job as weather presenter at AM-UK! and with this arrangement she doesn’t have to disturb him. And sex isn’t everything, you know. She and Peter still have a lot of fun, along with their two teenaged kids who are weekly boarders at a private school in Kent. Well, the kids are kind of odd - Matt is a loner and Katie tries to psychoanalyze everyone - but at least they don’t get into trouble.

Then a chance comment from Faith’s ultra-glam best friend Lily plants a seed of suspicion in Faith’s mind about Peter’s faithfulness. Before long she is rifling through his trouser pockets and credit card statements, trying to prove that her suspicions are groundless. Perhaps Faith should have let sleeping dogs lie, because eventually she and Peter find themselves on the irrevocable path towards divorce. A chance encounter leads to a promising new relationship with a handsome set designer, but are sunny days truly in the forecast? Even a skilled meteorologist can’t predict the ups and downs that Faith will experience throughout the next 12 months until she reaches what would have been her 16th anniversary - sadder and wiser but hopeful as well.

If you like black humor, Isabel Wolff is the author for you. Even as Faith’s world is crumbling, many of the scenes are played for laughs, including the name of her high-profile divorce lawyer. Faith’s outré friend Lily, editor of a fashion magazine, is of the firm belief that anything can be stylish if you give it a French name, including a special issue on the Cold War entitled Nucleaire. Also entertaining is Wolff’s signature style of quickly cutting between snippets of conversation, and cleverly juxtaposing Faith’s weather bulletins with the earpiece gossip she picks up from the production staff. In fact, the scenes at AM-UK!, complete with vain, aging news anchor and conniving wannabes, are the best part of the novel.

But domestically and romantically, the novel flounders. I don’t believe Wolff has had much direct experience with children, because Matt and Katie are exceptionally unrealistic adolescents. They’re conveniently away at school for most of the novel, but when they are present they have little to no adverse reactions to their parents’ impending divorce. They feel like plot devices and joke fodder more than real characters, although the secret behind Matt’s furtive computer utilization is one of the better surprises in the story.

Which leaves us with Faith, a kind-hearted but dim heroine who manages to muck up her troubled marriage, ignore the signs that her new lover is all surface but no substance, and let her best friend manipulate her into making disastrous major life decisions. By the time the scales fall from her eyes, the reader is utterly frustrated by Faith’s naiveté. Watching her pick up the pieces as she learns to “have Faith” before it is too late is somewhat rewarding, but then Wolff throws a few curveballs into the happy ending that make it more cynical than sappy.

I have no qualms about recommending Out of the Blue for readers who appreciate clever, satiric comedy. But for those who want to become deeply involved with sympathetic characters who find the happy ending they deserve, Isabel Wolff’s latest will be a disappointment.

--Susan Scribner

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