Rachel Cline's "What to Keep" is another novel about parental neglect and a daughter coming to terms with her own responsibilities to herself and others, an appraisal, naturally, that includes her own version of motherhood. The book is divided into thirds, taking place when the narrator is 12, 26 and 36. Denny Roman is a precocious, lonely girl whose neuroscientist parents, Charles and Lily, are distant and preoccupied: "No one identifies their six-year-old girl's willfulness as 'passion' but Charles and Lily did recognize in Denny an emotional immediacy that was genuine, relentless and entirely new to both of them."
» When Lily has a car accident on the day of Denny's debut as an actress in a middle-school play, Lily wanders their town, a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, in a muddle, forgetting her engagements and even her identity. "The thing that Lily has never been able to see around the sides of is being a mother. Even while working sixty hours a week, even when Denny was asleep, even when she and Denny were always together and their relationship made perfect sense to her, the role of mother did not. Even more than a doctor, even more than a wife, a mother is an 'other,' whose existence always seems incomplete -- and maybe that's why, in Lily's state of burgeoning concussion, it is the first thing she lets go.".
Cline's eminently readable, tender tale mixes empathy and quiet humor, adolescent yearning and adult understanding. Returning to Ohio from Los Angeles to clean out her room as her mother prepares to move to New York for a research job, Denny expects revelation. "As they pull into the driveway, Denny waits for the feeling of home to wash over her. As she opens the car door, she draws a deep breath of the still, hot air. She smells lawn cuttings, dying barbecues, exhaust. Nothing happens. The way the eleventh stair creaks doesn't do it, either. Nor does the smell of the freshly laundered pillowcase on her childhood bed. No wonder she is not a Method actor."
"In the last section, when Denny has relocated to Manhattan herself and taken up playwriting, this wry 36-year-old has the opportunity to become a mother, via the potential adoption of the 12-year-old African-American son of her recently deceased friend. That a kind of Prince Charming (a blue-eyed former Brat Packer turned director) appears in the final scene is a testament to the power of chick lit, though the fact that he's a divorced father with his own adolescent to contend with assures us that another story is just beginning.
Rachel CLINE is a recovering screenwriter, and her debut novel -- about a girl from Columbus, Ohio, who goes to Hollywood to make it as an actress and eventually winds up in New York trying to make it as a playwright -- zings along with cinematic flair. What's surprising, though, is just how probing this story is, as it unfolds in triptych (1976, 1990, 2000) and illuminates the shadowy interstices of family life.
» Denny Roman (given name, Eden) is Cline's heroine. When we first meet her, she's 12 years old and presenting her mother, Lily, with a Hostess Sno Ball. It 's her mother's birthday, and the Sno Ball in question becomes a metaphoric breast, the first of many mischievous takes on parenting. The birthday, meanwhile, is an utter mess: Lily, a neuroscientist divorced from Denny's neuroscientist dad, gets into a car wreck, wanders into a beauty salon with a concussion and miscarries -- she'd recently conceived on an airplane -- in a police squad car.
In 1990, Denny returns to a relatively calmer Columbus from L.A. Lily and her second husband, Phil (the man from the plane), are preparing to move to New York, where Lily has won a prestigious post at Columbia. As Denny combs through her childhood stuff (Dr. Seuss books, her trusty old "blankie"), she secretly preps for a big meeting with Robert Altman. Fast forward to 2000, and Denny's play, "Gray Matter Theater," is going up off-Broadway when an unexpected guest arrives at her doorstep: Luke, the 12-year-old son of the family's longtime helpmeet, Maureen, an organizational wonder who'd mothered Denny and Lily and has recently died. Luke's father was a Mauritanian refugee cabby, and as Luke struggles to define himself -- in terms of family, self and identity -- we find Denny still juggling these very issues.
"What to Keep" is a mad tangle of personal histories, full of characters who are as tangibly real as they are completely AWOL. As Denny comes to learn, in an epiphanic moment that could be this exquisite melodrama's epigraph, "Not everyone who's absent is dead."
Cline's realistic tale of a drama queen slowly coming of age is one to keep
This first novel visits the delightful Denny Roman at three points in her life. At 12, she is a precocious Ohio kid with absentee parents who does a surprise star turn in the school play. Fourteen years later, Denny, now an aspiring Hollywood actress, returns to Ohio to help her distant mother and young stepfather clear out her childhood bedroom. Finally, a decade after that, she is an intense New York playwright with a burgeoning career but a lackluster love life.
» Cline, a former screenwriter, delves into familial and romantic minefields with compassion and humor. Denny worries that she might be "too weird or sensitive or selfish to thrive in the world," but her twisted wit and insightful dissections of everything from Hollywood culture to self-defense classes help her muddle through life's heartbreaks and finally, if messily, grow up. (3 1/2 stars)
In her striking debut, What to Keep, Rachel Cline creates chick lit for smarties.
The typical literary heroine of today performs extreme, often unflattering acrobatics to get our attention and sympathy. Maybe because of competition from racy tell-all memoirists, novelists no longer feel it's enough to introduce a thoughtful, dignified grown-up female with a few life-size problems. Instead, we get frazzled little girls dating Mr. Wrong and bingeing on Haagen-Dazs to prove how vulnerable and lovable they are. We're treated to sagas of childhood sexual abuse and ever more extravagant domestic and romantic crises. One of the chief delights of Rachel Cline's lovely, understated debut is her smart, self-respecting heroine Denny Roman, who never clamors for attention. And thereby earns it.
»What to Keep begins in 1976 in suburban Ohio, where Denny's chilly but well-meaning neuroscientist mother, Lily, has just begun a discreet affair with a much younger colleague named Phil. Recently divorced, Lily delegates much of 12-year-old Denny's care to her personal assistant, Maureen, and "thinks of herself as a person who moves on with a quick step and considers retrospection a form of self-indulgence that requires far too much time." Could there be a less suitable parent for Denny? She's a budding drama queen in a J. Geils Band T-shirt who admires the hairdos on Welcome Back, Kotter and vamps her way through the school production of Damn Yankees--which Lily never even turns up to see.
Cut to 1990. Denny, now a struggling actress in Los Angeles ("the balmy, palm-tree studded version of hell"), flies to Ohio to help her mother, now married to Phil, clean out her childhood home before Lily moves to New York. Unsentimental to a fault, Lily has arranged to sell Denny's old records at a garage sale. She can't understand why Denny is so irritated by the loss of Bananarama albums or so excited about an upcoming meeting with Robert Altman.
When Lily stumbles across her daughter's diary lying open on a bed, she is too principled--or is it dispassionate?--to snoop, even after a furtive glance reveals "not only the pattern of 'Lily's on the page but also certain other words that would jump out of the jumble to anyone's eye. Words like 'death,' 'rage,' and 'bitch,' for example." It's typical of Lily's emotional restraint and Cline's authorial subtlety that this background detail is allowed to remain just that. Diaries overflowing with unkind descriptions of Mom can be found in almost every attic in America; why make too much of it?
Another decade later, Lily and Denny, now a writer, are both living in New York. Luke, the adolescent son of Lily's former assistant Maureen, unexpectedly turns up on Denny's doorstep, looking for a new home. The book's finale--encompassing the production of Denny's first play, Lily's appropriately enthusiastic response, and the rounding out of their stunted family with the addition of Luke and a new love for Denny--may seem a bit too sugary for such a crisp, tart piece of fiction. But you wish Denny a happy ending. Rather than a goal-oriented obstacle course set up by an ambitious, insecure author, this sparkling novel reads like a stubbornly particular and difficult life story. A-
"If everyone just turns out like their mother, then what's the rat's ass point?"
Rachel Cline did not write that pithy gem, but she might as well have. The sentiment (taken from Elizabeth Strout's similarly themed novel "Amy and Isabelle") serves as the driving force behind "What to Keep," Cline's impressive debut.
»As the novel opens in 1976, 12-year-old Denny Roman will do just about anything to win the approval of her divorced mother, Lily, a neurological researcher with little time for sex talks or school plays. Maureen, the Romans' personal assistant of sorts, thus takes on the role of nurturer, booking taxis for Lily and receiving calls from Denny's principal after the precocious teenager flashes her lab partner in revenge for his wisecracks about her newly developing bosom.
For Denny and her mother, Maureen is a rock, a bastion of organizational prowess and self-assured tranquillity. But behind her telephone cords and appointment books, the woman is an agoraphobic wreck, having suffered the traumatic effects of a rape and now believing herself pregnant. Lily also fears she's carrying another baby, this one the result of a tryst on a plane with a guy named Phil who looks like Howdy Doody.
Meanwhile, there's Charles, Denny's devoted yet emotionally aloof father. For the three women, Charles is a man who looms large without really intending to. "If Charles wasn't so substantial visually (he's not just tall, he's dark and handsome), you might have to call him an enigma," Cline writes. "Lily, of course, knows Charles intimately, but she's not convinced that he ever did her any good. Most of the time, the part of her brain that deals with Charles supplies the message, Oh, that's just Charles, to any and all behavior the man enacts and that's the end of it."
Twice, the novel leaps forward in time, tracking the theatrical pursuits of a hopeful Denny, who never loses sight of a career onstage despite her parents' failure to attend her first school play. Midway through the novel, Denny flies home to Columbus to help her remarried and even more wildly successful mother pack up their home before it's sold. "What to keep" of her youthful possessions preoccupies Denny, precipitating a cross-country move, another career change and, eventually, a chance encounter with Luke, Maureen's son.
With her well-honed sense of humor and talent for finding nuance in the deepest of human connections, Cline is a writer who will likely loom large herself. Her sweet and affecting novel is not an indictment of where our parents fail us, but a celebration of the bond that outlasts all others.
A LIFE IN THREE ACTS
The literary landscape is littered with novels narrated by precociously wise "old souls" in thrift-shop chic and Doc Martens-brainy girls who somehow endure and thrive despite their inexplicably dim-witted and self-destructive parentage. Rachel Cline puts
»the boot on the other foot in her debut, What to Keep (Random House). Eden "Denny" Roman of Columbus, Ohio, is the creative, intuitive, somewhat directionless and emotionally unmoored daughter of two neurologists who are hopelessly brilliant and accomplished (if also hopelessly clueless in the crucial social and self-knowledge departments).
Denny's narrative comprises just three transitional moments: one in 1976, when she is 12 and discovering, through a middle school drama production, how she might step away from her parents' emotional wreckage; one in 1990, when she, now a striving actress in L.A. (trying to guess how to dress for an interview with Robert Altman), has to return to her childhood home (which her mother is finally leaving) to dispose of her remaining possessions in a matter of hours; and one in 2000, when she comes to New York City to find her way in the theater world-and into a found family of sorts. I'm rooting for her; you will too.
First novelist Cline, a screenwriter by trade, offers a charming look at the different combinations of people who can make up a family. Divided into three sections, the story follows the life of Denny Roman, a daughter of brilliantbut socially dysfunctional parents, and her relationship with Maureen, the family's de facto secretary, who teaches Denny how to accept the good parts of herself and her parents and not obsess over the bad.
»As Denny embarks on an acting career as a preteen, it is Maureen - not Denny's mom or dad - who shows up for performances. Denny, in turn, is there for Maureen when she has a mixed-race baby on her own at 45. Fast forward to the final section: Denny, who has become a successful playwright, comes full circle as she takes on the role of parenting Maureen's now teenaged son, Luke. Cline draws readers into caring about her flawed but likable characters while passing on some worthwhile life lessons.
Okay, so she's 37 in 2000 and tentatively moving into adulthood just as her first full-length play opens successfully off-Broadway. But Denny had a lot of childhood grievances to get over, starting with her parents' divorce when she was ten and the fact that her mother Lily, though loving, is so wrapped up in her medical research that she tends to miss things like Denny's understudy-becomes-star turn as Lola in her suburban Ohio high-school production of Damn Yankees. Luckily, even as early as that event back in 1976, Denny has found a second mother:
» "Maureen is the one who shows up, whether or not Denny's parents do, and Maureen is the one who taught her not to listen to the idiotic voices in her head, just the smart ones."
Beginning as the invaluable organizer of Lily's and Denny's lives, Maureen later becomes a psychotherapist, has a mixed-race baby out of wedlock at age 45, and dies on Denny when she's in her 50s. She's as complicated and appealingly vulnerable as the other members of the extended family that Cline portrays so well: Lily's nurturing younger second husband Phil; Denny's often clueless father Charles and his second wife Ellen; and Maureen's son Luke.
Most engaging of all, though, are Lily herself--so anxious to do her best for her daughter that she almost always blows it--and Denny, whose "emotional immediacy," she realizes early, tends either to confound or overwhelm other people, including ones she loves. The author nicely manages to capture the tangled resentments and aggravations of family life without herself wallowing in them, and she depicts her characters' feelings with both humor and a sense of empathy in clean, cool prose spiked with just enough colloquial bite.
No Big Insights here: just perfectly observed details of ordinary life that coalesce to offer a realistically hopeful and genuinely touching finale.
In her smart and witty first novel, Cline hones in on three pivotal periods in the life of Denny Roman. We first see her as a seventh-grader in 1976 in Columbus, Ohio, still reeling from her parents' divorce and lashing out at the taunts of schoolmates with fearless and lacerating humor.
» At 27, she is a struggling actress in Hollywood come home to Columbus to pack up her childhood belongings; this process sends her into full freak-out mode, especially when her agent tells her she must fly back for a meeting with film director Robert Altman. At 27, she is living in New York City, immersed in preparations for the off-Broadway opening of her play. Some of the constants in her life include her cerebral, perpetually distracted scientist mom, with whom she has a complicated relationship; her vulnerable, sensitive stepdad; and her prescient, deeply wise best friend, the acerbic Maureen. This is a wryly funny novel that feels completely fresh. It has an odd but effective structure; depicts offbeat, memorable characters; and offers a perceptive, nuanced take on familial relationships.
A wry, ironic voice narrates this sharply observed and paradoxically tender first novel, which reveals Denny Roman at three pivotal moments in her life. In Columbus, Ohio, in 1976, 12-year-old Denny essentially mothers herself, since her divorced mother, Lily, is more preoccupied with her neurological research than with the details of maternal care.
» Cool, remote Charles, Denny’s father, is also a doctor; he adores Denny but can’t show it. Denny’s emotional support, then, comes from Maureen, an agoraphobe who runs a physician’s answering service that has morphed into a life support for the Romans. An efficient surrogate mother, Maureen books taxis, makes hair appointments and fields calls from Denny’s school, but her agoraphobia is a symptom of her own loneliness. Thus begins this smart, witty novel about good but emotionally blocked people who struggle to connect.
Denny’s thrill of success as the lead in her middle school play (which neither of her parents attends) impels her to pursue an acting career in Hollywood, where the novel jumps a decade later. She flies home to Columbus to help her mother, now remarried and on the eve of a prestigious career opportunity, pack up the family home before it’s sold. Denny’s question—what to keep of her youthful possessions—motivates her move to New York and leads to another career change. The plot resumes a decade later as Denny’s first play is about to premiere, and as Luke, the 12-year-old son of the late Maureen, shows up on her doorstep and becomes a catalyst for the next stage in Denny’s life. This study in emotional dislocation, held aloft by astute psychological insights and deadpan humor, moves to a satisfying denouement about connections that run deep and can surface when people try hard and are lucky.
Forecast: Reminiscent of Elizabeth Strout’s Amy and Isabelle, another excellent mother-daughter tale, Cline’s novel should be well reviewed and well received. Blurbs from Strout and Ann Packer will help draw in browsers.