The Wonder Spot
By Melissa Bank
Viking, 324 pp., $24.95
Beware the young female protagonist with more than 17 boyfriends, I always say. Melissa Bank's wry and often charming ''The Wonder Spot" is poised somewhere between a modern-day comedy of manners and a marathon of tamer ''Sex and the City" episodes, with its hapless heroine stumbling around Manhattan not in Manolo Blahniks, but sneakers -- her spectator pumps for job interviews are stashed in her bag. Sophie Applebaum, newly minted from the Pennsylvania burbs, has a college degree but can only type nine words a minute; she also has a great dad and two protective brothers, but terrible radar for men. In other words, she's like a lot of other young, white, urban women coughed out by pop culture in the past decade, testament to the subgenre of publishing known as ''ChickLit," a category whose name so gives me the willies that I've been loath to use it until the occasion commanded.
Bank had commercial and critical success with her first book, ''The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing," a series of interconnected stories that appeared in 1999 on the heels of the ''Bridget Jones" phenomenon. That debut featured a young woman from the Pennsylvania burbs named Jane Rosenal, hilarious at the family dinner table and unlucky in love, smart but trapped in temp jobs in New York, and . . . well, you see the pattern. ''The Wonder Spot" is Jane all over again, but the physician father has become a judge and the jokes are a little more mordant.
The scaffolding for Sophie's Life Unfolding is set up in the first chapter, when she's around 12: After the Applebaum family attends a cousin's bat mitzvah, Sophie announces at dinner that she's decided against having her own. Her eternally understanding father persuades his headstrong daughter to attend Hebrew classes, just to be sure; Sophie concedes, then spends class time smoking in the synagogue bathroom with a bad-girl acquaintance. Thus begins the thematic reach of ''The Wonder Spot": possibility, defiance, compromise. After college (a ''notvery-good school in Klondike, New York"), she tries living with each of her brothers in New York: Robert has an Orthodox fiancee whom Sophie offends by blowing the kosher laws of the kitchen; when she moves into Jack's, she insinuates herself into his fights with his girlfriend. Banished to her grandmother's apartment in the Bronx, Sophie practices her typing and waits for life to begin. By the time she arrives at Steinhardt Publishers on Madison Avenue, she has increased her typing speed, written a scathing review of a romance novel for her potential boss, and honed her attitude, if not her ambition, to match her wit.
''The Wonder Spot" is meant to be a novel, though its chapters are mostly self-contained forays into adulthood, with Sophie frantically trying to find the right mix of relationships, jobs, and apartments that will make a life. The publishing job morphs into advertising, where she stays late, glazed-eyed, and pretends to care about product placement. She takes art classes, goes to friends' country houses for the weekend. She gets involved with Josh, a wannabe poet whose talent is no match for his self-importance. Then there's Matthew the tender narcissist, Bobby the hipster loser, and Neil the insecure neurologist. The list is a common enough dress rehearsal for any young woman with a plan and a pulse, and Sophie's romantic pratfalls are played off against her brothers' -- Robert, married to the stern and proper Naomi, is probably miserable, while Jack changes girlfriends as casually as socks and has no joy to show for his freedom.
All of this would be fine or better, were there an authorial eye -- something higher than irony and more merciful than self-pity -- to accompany its heroine's misadventures. But ''The Wonder Spot" enjoys a certain facility of language and cleverness without ever claiming any more territory than Sophie's mutable life strategies. It's episodic without much narrative hint of awareness: Even when Sophie extricates herself from a dead-end crush, it's as though we're meant to find her level-headed and even wise, when all you really want to do is hold up a highway sign reading ''UH, DUH, BRIDGE DOWN AHEAD." When she falls head over heels for the neurologist, all seems well for a few pages -- until she confides in a friend about her new man, and finds herself thinking, ''I don't love him the way I loved Chris." Who's Chris?
This is one of the obvious risks, or burdens, of the first-person narrator, who by necessity has to be mature or observant enough to keep the reader nourished, or at least hungry for more. It's probably telling that ''The Wonder Spot" is most revealing when it brushes up against the troubles and pleasures that accrue only with time: the brilliant, circumspect editor who sends Sophie an annual Christmas card for years on end; the death of her father; the less traveled route Sophie's mother takes toward her own version of happiness. And it's true that ''The Wonder Spot" can be captivating in a sort of oh-my-God-life-is-so-hard-do-you-think-he-likes-me kind of way, and thus will appeal to a whole stratum of readers, most of them female and young, who have traded in plenty of Matthews for Neils and still wonder about Chris, and who haven't found their way either out of Manhattan or into a publishing contract. What did the world do before the ChickLit phenomenon? More germane, what were all those young women immersed in? Some of them were probably reading ''Bright Lights, Big City" and thinking, Hey, I could do that. Yikes.
Gail Caldwell is chief book critic of the Globe. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.