No Ordinary Matter
by Jenny McPhee
Beyond Bridget Jones
A review by Barbara O'Dair
Jenny McPhee's modern young women struggle to find their footing with or without
men or children. In No Ordinary Matter, two sisters, Lillian, a beautiful
neurosurgeon, and Veronica, a soap opera and musical comedy writer, hire a private
investigator to probe the circumstances of their father's death 25 years earlier,
ultimately unearthing startling family facts. Along the way, a series of coincidences
occur: For one, Alex Drake, the handsome new actor on Veronica's show, has unknowingly
impregnated Lillian in a one-night stand, which Lillian orchestrated to conceive
Supposedly random occurrences such as this one are McPhee's specialty, and
she layers her plot lines with scientific inquiry, often pitting the factual
world against the more malleable constructs of psychology and choice. Of Lillian
for instance, McPhee writes, "Abandonment, jealousy, anger, and resentment
were all feelings she usually absorbed and deflected with the ease and precision
of a superconducting magnet."
The sisters meet regularly at a pastry shop, each one often dressed to the nines
and spouting breezy repartee that passes for sisterly confidences. "When
she had told Lillian about the breakup, her sister had said very little more
than 'Perhaps there is a God.' 'Should I call him?' Veronica had asked. 'Cold
turkey, it's the only way' ... 'I think we have to stop meeting in this place,'
Lillian said. 'I mean, the art is just so consistently bad, I'm reduced to reassessing
your ex-boyfriend's talent.'"
The novel's angle on parenthood is complex -- the ending truly illustrates
this point, but there are plenty of other examples. Their mother is absentee,
off raising farm animals in New Zealand, their father's death is shrouded in
mystery, and Lillian eschews partnership in raising a child. "A few months
earlier Lillian had announced to Veronica that she had decided to have a baby.
She was thirty-five ... there was no man she was particularly interested in
and certainly no one she wanted to share the experience with ... She would just
have to rely on Margaret Mead's dictum: Fatherhood was a social invention."
For McPhee, it would seem, the world is a fascinating machine with intricate
parts that somehow fit together: Broadway, television, brain chemistry, academia,
motherhood, family, feminism, beauty, jealousy, love, sex and work -- and that's
what she models her novel on. It's a heady mix, and an ambitious undertaking.
She has wit and patience with her sometimes exasperating characters, and a demonstrated
skill as ringmaster to her intricate plot circles and the ideas that make them