Part satire, part social commentary, part coming-of-age, Marjorie Klein's captivating debut novel, "Test Pattern," is a terrific book. Told in chapters which alternate between a mother and daughter's point of view, the novel focuses on a disintegrating marriage between a deeply frustrated housewife and her increasingly embittered husband and an engaging, creative daughter who, incidentially, perceives the future through images gleaned from staring at a test pattern on her family's new television. Set in 1954, the novel captures the extraordinary (and subterranean) influence television exerts on American culture; Klein is at her very best in the numerous instances where she describes how television alters and redefines personal expectations, perceptions and, most alarmingly, identity. The grace of "Test Pattern" is its ability to treat very serious issues with extraordinary humor, delightful dialogue and a pitch-perfect sense of what blue-collar American was like in the so-called golden age of television.
Klein has created two compelling characters in the repressed Lorena Palmer and her fascinating, sensitive daughter Cassie. It is clear the author carries considerable compassion for both: the mother, locked in a loveless marriage she initially believed was the embodiment of the American Dream, and the daughter, terribly conflicted over her family's disintegration and her "gift" of perception no-one else, less a bohemian artist, seems to respect, much less understand. Lorena is a fully-rendered character. She "weeps for lost dreams, repressed ambitions, for time rolling on without her. For her depressing past, her dismal present, and the possibility...of a future slapped down by the hand of fate." In circumstances as zany as any to which Lucille Ball gave comedic expression, Lorena's marriage and life spiral crazily out of control. Klein's treatment of female discontent, the evolving frustrations of housewife life, sexuality, friendships and marital infidelity are astoundingly right on key.
The novel, however, belongs to Cassie, and it is through the child's eyes that we fully recognize the author's talents. The fissures, ultimately growing into yawning chasms, which lay bare the dissolution of her family weigh heavily on Cassie. She questions herself constantly, wondering if her gift of perception is really hereditary nuttiness, pondering why her friend's "weird" family is cohesive and loving while her "normal" family is painfully distorted, probing presciently into her father's morose loss of purpose and her mother's near infantile self-absorption. Cassie's introduction to sex, whether it be from her test-pattern visions of the late twentieth-century's blatant use (and abuse) of sexuality to her anguishing over her first bra are done with incredible wit and compassion. How Cassie introduces Michael Jackson's moonwalk to her Chattanooga Choo-Choo bound mother is literally sidesplitting.
I hope "Test Pattern" finds the widest reading audience, although readers over the age of 45 will gain particular pleasure savoring the author's recreation of the impact tv had on our lives in the 1950s. This skilled, probing and kind novel will undoubtedly be translated into a film, one in which the essential truths will reveal themsleves even without the aid of a test pattern.