by Maria Beaumont

Voice (Hyperion), 2008. ISBN 978-1401303198.
Reviewed by Duffie Bart
Posted on 11/26/2007

Fiction: Chicklit

When I first heard about this book, I assumed the number "37" might refer to someone's favorite number at the gambling tables in Las Vegas. But upon viewing the cover of this book, my lame guess was instantly replaced by the clear message. It shows a very pink birthday cake with two brightly lit candles in the shape of a "3" and a "7." The candle wax drips steadily down the numbers, messing up how pretty they once looked—the perfect metaphor for the story within its pages depicting the messed up life of our increasingly depressed protagonist, Fran Clark, who barely makes it through her thirty-seventh year.

So we're talking about a female character's midlife crisis. Not the newest of literary material. I promised to reward myself after reading a chapter or two with a generous portion of ice cream. Well, the ice cream never happened until close to midnight when my eyes became barely open slits, and the last page had been turned. As I sat bleary-eyed, appeasing my insistent sweet tooth, I pondered what had so captivated me about this story of the dashed hopes of our unhappy heroine.

We learn early that Fran's life as a wife and mother in upper-class suburbia is spiraling downward very quickly. Her dream is unexpectedly turning into something of a nightmare... Her husband receives a promotion and suddenly spends more time in the office and on airplanes than at home; her children and housework seem to exhaust and bore her in equal measure; the women in her children's school are, by and large, competitive, self-important and clique-ish. She feels left out and inadequate. She misses the days when she was doing voiceovers for commercials but is no longer sure she has what it takes to go back to it. In short, as her self-confidence slides south, she sinks more and more into the faux comfort of cigarettes and chardonnay.

While all of this is nothing new, the book manages to be extremely entertaining. For one thing, Beaumont's writing is clipped and to the point. She writes in the style of Nora Ephron, giving Fran the same wry wit and sharp observations as she goes about her errand-filled days. Fran is an endearing heroine (if often indulging in an overdose of self-pity), and I never lost my interest in her long journey back to sanity. The truth is I Iike her. I feel for her, identify with her and would be happy to have her as my friend, sobs and all. Genuine and without guile, Fran has two good friends who care about her, even when she is too distracted to notice. Her husband is also a good sort, though he too goes through an unfortunate phase of equally questionable behavior. The couple have a lot to learn.

The intricate process of growing self-awareness—the very crux of this story—is touchingly conveyed by the talented author. She understands the elusive quality that can separate two people in spite of their love for one another. How does she explain this sad trajectory? What happened to the communication, once so lively and open and now so inhibited and defensive? We watch Fran change from the strong, vivacious woman her husband married to a person who has shut down, dresses like a slob, feels hopeless, and is certain her husband has found someone else. Her fears grow roots deep inside her until she wants only to escape from herself, easily done with a glass of chardonnay. One day, she forgets to pick up her children from school. On another, she misses an interview for a job. Fran is not indifferent; she is indeed horrified.

I turned the pages, hoping this basically intelligent young woman would "get a grip" and pull herself out of the mess she is making of her life. Beaumont does not write her way into easy, facile answers because there are none. If there were, her book, and the lives of all of us, would be without the ups and downs, without the unexpected hurdles that are our teachers, and when all is said and done, that make our lives both colorful and rich.

Maria Beaumont enjoyed careers as a dance instructor and in advertising before turning to writing. She has published three novels in the U.K. Her third book, 37, will be the first to appear in the U.S. when it is released January 8, 2008. The author lives in London with her husband, novelist Matt Beaumont, and their two children.

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