Janelle Brown's debut novel pulls back the curtain on "the good life" in Silicon Valley. Just as Janice Miller's family reaches for their moment of triumph as her husband's pharmaceutical company goes public, making the Millers multimillionaires on paper, Janice's world crumbles around her in a day.
The story covers the following summer as Janice slides into despair, along with her fourteen-year-old daughter Lizzie, who is looking for validation in all the wrong places; and her former wunderkind daughter Margaret, now 28, who is returning home from Los Angeles, in debt and without direction, after her feminist magazine has failed. Janice's husband Paul is a mere phantom in the story, practically gone before he left, an entitled, ruthless, self-proclaimed "libertarian" Wizard of Oz figure.
Janelle Brown's keen eye for detail and razor-sharp wit keep the story afloat, but there is little but despair and missed chances for connection between the Miller women. I am giving the book 5 stars based on its literary merit, but as a reader I wished that the story had continued a little farther down the path of redemption and transformation. Perhaps it was a braver artistic choice not to make it that easy for the characters or the book's readers.
As sad as these three women are, on a metaphorical level I recognized a part of myself in each of them. Brown takes each woman to the edge of destruction, but she always maintains a sliver of their essential humanity. The bonds between mother, daughter, sister are stretched to the limit but do not break.
This would be an intriguing book club read. I'd love to talk with others about ambition, feminism, judgment, redemption, and the complex nature of Brown's attitude toward her characters. I just finished reading the book and I have a feeling my reaction will evolve over time.
Brown's writing is specific and original and at the same time her novel brings to mind a number of other works: women in limbo, not yet responding to their wake-up call as in Meg Wolitzer's The Ten-Year Nap; the suburban self-destruction of Tom Perrotta's Little Children (with less sex); and the biting social satire of Perrotta's Election. Finally, the Miller women's propensity to turn to boys and men again and again to escape or solve their problems could be a case study out of Leslie Bennetts' The Feminine Mistake.