Gone With the Windsors
By Laurie Graham
HarperCollins, 403 pp., $24.95
Walking in Circles Before Lying Down
By Merrill Markoe
Villard, 270 pp, $22.95
Happiness Sold Separately
By Lolly Winston
Warner, 304 pp., $21.99
Somehow August, of all months, calls for a little light reading, but these ingenious novels would be enjoyable in any season.
Laurie Graham provides a sharply funny ``insider" account of Wallis Simpson's tireless campaign to capture the Prince of Wales, the man who was, briefly, King Edward VIII before he shocked the world by abdicating the monarchy to marry an American divorcee. In ``Gone With the Windsors" Graham persuasively casts the Duke and Duchess of Windsor's ``romance of the century" as more dark comedy than love story (see Page D7 for an interview with Graham).
This entertaining historical novel takes the form of a diary written by the fictional Maybell Brumby, a wealthy young Baltimore widow who leaves America in 1932 and sets out to conquer London society. Maybell has one foot in the door: Her high-minded sister, Violet, has married into the aristocracy. But shallow, self-obsessed Maybell has no time for Violet's charity work. She looks up her old school chum ``Wally," who is married to deadly-dull businessman Ernest Simpson. Wally is scheming to worm her way into the Prince of Wales's social set, but Ernest keeps her on a tight budget. Enter Maybell and her money. Soon, Wally has clothing, jewelry, and all the other trappings she needs to infiltrate the prince's circle. The ever-generous Maybell gains an entree into that exclusive coterie of fun-loving hangers-on, most of whom are as dim-witted and superficial as she is.
Maybell is easily confused. She mistakes Cole Porter for a coal porter. She persist s in ordering things from ``Harrold's" department store. And she has her own peculiar view of larger events: ``This morning, while Wally and I were having our nails done and HRH was up on The Bridge, scanning for battleships, Germany invaded Poland. Also, an anti-aircraft battery arrived and proceeded to dig latrines upwind of our bathing pavilion without so much as a by-your-leave. When war approaches, courtesy flies out the window."
At times, t he deliberately inane tone of the diary must have been difficult for Graham to sustain. Maybell's chatterbox style belies the enormous amount of research that must have gone into writing this novel. Those who have read nonfiction accounts of this affair may think there's nothing more to be written, but Graham's fiction illuminates and enlivens history. It also has contemporary relevance. ``Gone With the Windsors" is irresistible.
Merrill Markoe's ``Walking in Circles Before Lying Down" may herald a promising new subgenre: chick lit with talking dogs. Or are there already dozens of other books in this category? No matter how many there may be, I'd be willing to bet that none are as witty, well written , and sweet as this one.
Dawn Tarnauer, twice divorced, works as a dog-sitter in the Hollywood Hills. The humans in her life are a disappointment, to put it mildly. Her sister, Halley, has ended her affair with Scott Peterson (they were sneaking around behind Amber Frey's back) and, on direct orders from God, has become a life coach. Their narcissistic mother, Joyce, is obsessed with marketing her creation, the Every Holiday Tree -- a kind of all-occasion Christmas tree -- to
Dawn has always talked to dogs and believed she understood them: ``When I offered to take them out for a walk, I could hear them yelling, `Yippee!' " And it's not just Chuck talking to her. Every dog she meets has something to say. Anyone who has ever put words into a pet's mouth will be amused, but perhaps not surprised, by the dogs' views on sex, garbage, fetching tennis balls, toys, and food. (``Food! Food! Food! Food!") Markoe is pitch-perfect when it comes to channeling dogspeak. ``Walking in Circles Before Lying Down" is a delight.
Lolly Winston has followed up her highly praised first novel, ``Good Grief," with the very impressive ``Happiness Sold Separately,'' a tender, wry, beautifully crafted story about a marriage in trouble. Corporate attorney Elinor Mackey is 40 and miserable. She's desperate to conceive a child, and exhausted by various fertility treatments. Her characteristic good humor has given way to depression. She feels like ``a malfunctioning farm animal that needed to be put down."
Elinor's podiatrist husband, Ted, has taken refuge at the gym, where he's lost 15 pounds and launched an affair with Gina, his trainer. Elinor finds out about the affair in the first chapter and confronts Ted and Gina. Ted ends the affair. He loves his wife. But he can't stop thinking about Gina. The situation is complicated by Gina's troubled 10-year old son, Toby, who wants Ted to be his father.
Winston narrates the novel from several points of view, and in the process makes all her characters sympathetic. Their voices are real and thoroughly human. There's nothing easy about this story. It's complicated, messy, and unpredictable -- like real life.
Diane White writes every month about new light and popular fiction.