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Pop Lit

Nothing lets you down like excess

By Diane White
December 14, 2008
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THIS ONE IS MINEBy Maria Semple
Little, Brown, 289 pp., $24.99

SECOND TIME AROUNDBy Marcia Willett
St. Martin’s, 304 pp., paperback,$13.95

THE SWEET IN-BETWEEN
By Sheri Reynolds
Shaye Areheart, 208 pp., $23

Maria Semple takes on the follies of the posh life in Los Angeles in her sharp, funny first novel. British author Marcia Willett demonstrates why her insightful novels about relationships are bestsellers in the United Kingdom. Sheri Reynolds writes an unsettling coming-of-age story about a young woman with far too many problems.

Semple pokes fun at the overprivileged in "This One Is Mine." It's been done again and again, of course, but Semple, a former television producer and writer, brings a fresh eye to a milieu she clearly knows well. Violet Parry lives a rarefied existence in the Hollywood Hills with her wealthy music-promoter husband David and their toddler, Dot. She gave up a successful career writing for TV to become a mother and chatelaine of the Parrys' showplace house. But lately she's not the Violet David married, Ultra Violet, the woman who knows how to get things done. But neither is workaholic, money-obsessed David the thoughtful man Violet fell in love with.

Violet becomes obsessed with grubby bass player Teddy Reyes, a recovering drug addict infected with hepatitis C, a charming lowlife, an unwashed romantic with a self-destructive bent. To Violet he's the most unsuitable man imaginable, so he's irresistible. She fantasizes about throwing over everything and running off with him, but her imagination takes her only as far as reserving a suite at the Ritz-Carlton. In a parallel plot line, David's volatile younger sister Sally, a washed-up ballerina who makes a living running princess parties for little girls, is desperately hunting a wealthy husband. She thinks she has found the man in Jeremy, an oddly self-contained sports-handicapping genius on the cusp of fame and fortune as an ESPN broadcaster. She browbeats him into an engagement. Semple brings the two stories together when Violet hires Teddy's collection of musical misfits, Sticky Fingers, "The World's Only Rolling Stone Tribute Band," to play at Sally and Jeremy's wedding. She has a deft touch when it comes to choreographing chaos. The wedding is a memorably funny disaster. "This One Is Mine" is a delight.

Willett is an able storyteller who works on a small canvas, writing insightfully about ordinary people and everyday events. "Second Time Around" takes place in the west of England, as most of her novels do. Elderly Mathilda Rainbird lives in an eccentric-looking three-level house set in a cliff above a secluded beach on the south Devon coast. Her marine biologist father built the house, and Mathilda has lived there alone since he died. She allows Isobel Stangate to live in a cottage on the property in return for help with household tasks. It began as a business arrangement, but the two women have struck up a genuine friendship. Isobel is trying to recover from a bout of midlife madness, having left her husband and teenage daughter for a fling with a lover and regretted it almost at once. Her ex-husband is wary; her daughter refuses to speak to her.

When Mathilda learns that she is suffering from terminal cancer, she instructs her attorney to make out a will leaving the cove property to three cousins, none of whom she has ever met. The cousins are strangers to one another, too. The beneficiaries are Tessa Rainbird, a young dog-sitter who was orphaned at an early age; Will Rainbird, a widowed diplomat who has lived alone in Switzerland for years; and Beatrice Holmes, just retired from a career as matron at a boys' school. The three lonely cousins are revitalized after they move to the secluded cove. They, along with Isobel, come to care about one another.

In her fifth novel, "The Sweet In-Between," Reynolds revisits themes - coming of age, sexual abuse, parental abandonment, sexual confusion, poverty - that have figured in her previous novels. The story is set in a Southern beach-resort town that has seen better days. Narrator Kendra "Kenny" Lugo is about to turn 18 and is apprehensive about her future. Her mother died when Kenny was young; her sexually abusive father is in jail for dealing drugs. Kenny lives with her father's girlfriend, "Aunt" Glo, who works as a waitress to support Kenny and her own sons, teenage Tim-Tim and 12-year-old Quincy, and her runaway daughter's little girl, 7-year-old Daphne. Kenny worries that Glo will throw her out when she turns 18 and the state stops sending support money.

Glo is a kind woman, but she's addicted to painkillers and depends on Tim-Tim to steal them for her. Tim-Tim is a small-time crook and sexual predator who has abused Kenny in the past. Kenny worries that he'll abuse Daphne, and tries to protect her. To discourage Tim-Tim, and male attention in general, Kenny binds her chest, cuts her hair, and dresses like a boy. Kids at school call her a lesbian, and she thinks she might be, but she's not sure. When a next-door neighbor accidentally shoots and kills Clara Tinsley, a college student who he believed was breaking into his house, the young woman's senseless death has a profound effect on Kenny. She's a sensitive, perceptive narrator who relates the terrible facts of her life in a matter-of-fact voice. Reynolds, whose second novel, "The Rapture of Canaan," was an Oprah Book Club pick and subsequent bestseller, is a gifted writer with a deceptively simple style and a keen ear for dialogue.

Diane White writes every month about new light and popular fiction.

THIS ONE IS MINE By Maria Semple

Little, Brown, 289 pp., $24.99

SECOND TIME AROUND By Marcia Willett

St. Martin's, 304 pp., paperback, $13.95

THE SWEET IN-BETWEEN By Sheri Reynolds

Shaye Areheart, 208 pp., $23

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