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Friday, August 13th, 2004


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 a child.

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 swirl.

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