The Wonder Spot
by Melissa Bank
A review by Elizabeth Judd
Writers who produce wildly entertaining books often go underestimated by the literary
establishment. Melissa Bank's terrific new novel lacks the topical conflicts and
poetic imagery that critics appreciate, and its strong suit a companionable, offhand
sense of humor leading to subtle revelations of character is deceptively difficult
to achieve. Without straining for effect, Bank captures the lively inner world
of an unassuming narrator, Sophie Applebaum, who endures a continual series of
minor social and professional failures but manages to avoid crushing defeat. Allergic
to the spotlight, Sophie tends to recede into the background of her episodic story
(which spans twenty-five years), permitting the vivid escapades of family and
friends to upstage her own.
The Wonder Spot is strikingly similar to Bank's deservedly beloved (and presumably
autobiographical) 1999 best seller The
Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing; we revisit an essentially happy suburban
childhood, the death of a father, flirtations with various creative-writing
cads and other woes of a comically rudderless love life. And both books are
funny in a generous-spirited way, but The Wonder Spot takes on weightier issues.
Bank's central theme is the lifelong quest to balance obligation and personal
pleasure, a conflict each Applebaum must somehow resolve. Sophie may have difficulty
perceiving her role in the unfolding dramas, but she nonetheless works through
the big questions by embracing the struggles of others. And so when Sophie's
dutiful mother jettisons her rigid notions of propriety and rekindles an old
romance, we rightly assume that Sophie, too, will ultimately choose happiness.
The first time her mom utters her lover's name, Sophie says, "I heard something
in her voice that I'd only ever seen dozens of tiny silver fish jumping out
of the bay in Martha's Vineyard and it was as surprising and beautiful a sound
as it had been a sight."
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