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Ladies' plight

Summer chick lit has its ups and downs

The Mermaid Chair - by Sue Monk Kidd - (Penguin: New York) - $24.95/hardcover
  • The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd (Penguin: New York) $24.95/hardcover

Can we agree that the term 'chick lit' generally refers to books that most men don't want to read?

It's reductive and sexist and certainly not absolute, but the truth is that women buy more books than men, especially new-release hardbacks. Publishers rely on it. So do booksellers. Hence the success of the genre, which ranges wildly.

Authors Sue Monk Kidd, Lorna Landvik and Alice Hoffman loom large in the field, and each has a new book for summer.

Oh My Stars - by Lorna Landvik - (Ballantine: New York) - $24.95/hardcover
  • Oh My Stars by Lorna Landvik (Ballantine: New York) $24.95/hardcover

Following her wildly popular chick-lit classic, The Secret Life of Bees, Kidd visits the territory of mid-life angst in The Mermaid Chair, locating it on an island off the coast of South Carolina. Her protagonist Jessie is a successfully, if not happily, married 40-ish empty nester who has grown weary of her perfect life with perfect husband Hugh and college-age daughter Dee.

When Jessie receives a summons to her troubled mother's island home, she jumps on the ferry determined to face her past -- specifically, the troubling circumstances of her father's mysterious death -- and her present boredom with marriage.

Lo and behold, a lonely, uncertain Catholic monk is camped out in the local monastery. He and Jessie soon are having afternoon trysts in scenes as florid and damp as the wet grass beneath their heaving backs.

Jessie is a protagonist only a woman equally shallow and selfish could love. Where The Secret Life of Bees transported readers to a mythical place with truly original characters, The Mermaid Chair tries to make myth out of soap opera material, irritating with its lead character's intense self-involvement. Jessie is breathless and spineless, and finally marries herself on the beach before deciding which man to spend the rest of her life with. No joke. Book clubs beware: This Oprah episode writ large wants you.

The Ice Queen - by Alice Hoffman - (Little, Brown & Co.: New York) - $23.95/hardcover
  • The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman (Little, Brown & Co.: New York) $23.95/hardcover

Lorna Landvik's latest, Oh My Stars, is her best to date. A comedian and musician with a great ear for storytelling, Landvik (Patty Jane's House of Curl) ventures back to the Great Depression with an unforgettable heroine, Violet, who has been so disappointed by life by the age of 18 that she hops on a bus for San Francisco, planning to be the second person to die by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge.

When Violet's bus crashes in North Dakota, she hooks up with coal-black Austin, a blues musician, and Kjel, a hot young prodigy, forming the traveling musical group The Pearltones. What ensues is family-making, heart-breaking, blues-shaking adventure of the heart-and-soul brand. Landvik doesn't hit a false note until the very end, where Violet's life is wrapped in too neat a flourish.

Alice Hoffman, whose novels have headed steadily in the direction of magical realism over the past few years (Blackbird House, The River King), finally delivers an out-and-out fairy tale in the guise of a modern novel with The Ice Queen. Her unnamed narrator, a lonely librarian in New Jersey who is obsessed with death, is cursed with the ability to make wishes come true. She is struck by lightning and permanently altered, transported to a strange land where other strike victims possess mind-bending qualities.

When the ice queen of the title meets Lazarus, a man who was dead for 40 minutes following his strike and who is filled with flame, this book enters a zone somewhere between life and death, between what can and can't be. Hoffman sustains the narrative with a late plot twist and a voice steadily addressing Mr. Death himself. It's a risk, and it works.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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