When I heard that the woman known as “America’s Librarian” had written a novel, I’ll admit I may have had a few preconceived notions. Nancy Pearl is famous for providing recommendations on NPR and as the model for the first-ever Librarian Action Figure. I assumed the 72-year-old Pearl’s fiction debut would be something genteel along the lines of a Seattle-based Anne Tyler. I would not have guessed it begins with a teenage girl resolving to have sex with every starter on her high school’s entire football team, and then following through. As a longtime listener to Dan Savage’s sex-advice podcast, it takes a lot to shock me, but… yeah, that’s not quite what I was expecting.
Lizzie Bultmann is the only child of two professors of psychology who view her as little more than a living case study. (When she discusses the sleep-with-the-team plan with her best friend, Lizzie states that rather than grounding her for life if they found out, her parents would “want to watch. Maybe they’d bring along a grad student or two to take notes.”) “She wanted them to be curious about her, to want to know what went on below her polished surface… Maybe if they did find out… it would wake them up enough to finally see her.”
As it turns out, Lizzie’s “Great Game” doesn’t much affect her relationship with her parents, but it does have a hugely negative effect on her psyche. In college, she falls madly in love with a fellow student named Jack, who finds out about her high school exploits through an article her parents wrote for Psychology Today. When he leaves town and she never hears from him again, Lizzie is obsessed with finding him, even after she marries a perfectly wonderful dentist named George. Every time she’s in a new town, she can’t help checking the phone books to see if Jack’s listed. (This habit makes a certain degree of sense in the early chapters of the book, set in the late 80s and early 90s, but for goodness’ sake, the Internet made it almost ridiculously easy to find people by the end of the century; Google was around in the late 90s, and Facebook by the mid-2000s.)
I can sympathize with the pessimistic, book-obsessed Lizzie—temperamentally, I’m quite a bit like her, while my own husband is more of a George—but by the end, which seemed awfully abrupt, I was somehow left wanting more. However, the book, with its many short chapters, is a quick and easy read, and I enjoyed the way that Pearl namedrops a lot of authors, poets and book titles throughout.
For some reason, I kept wanting to read the title of this book as Mrs. Saint and the Deplorables, but no, this is not a novel about a group of Trump supporters. Mrs. Saint is the next-door neighbor of Markie, a beleaguered mom trying to make a new start in a new town after splitting from her unfaithful husband (who, it turns out, had also driven the family deep into debt). Markie pulls her teenage son out of his fancy private school and moves into a modest rental home, hoping to keep her head down and recover from her emotional wounds. She definitely does not want to get to know her nosy neighbor, an elderly French-Canadian woman who serves as something of a den mother to a group of misfits whom she’s hired to do various odd jobs around her house.
While Markie constantly tries to tell Mrs. Saint that she wants to be left alone, the neighbor always seems to be popping up, offering a basket of muffins (burnt, since they were baked by her inept cook), or asking Markie if she can babysit the young daughter of another one of her “defectives.” Eventually, Markie grows curious about Mrs. Saint, who seems to be all up in everyone else’s business but is a rather mysterious figure herself. She’s apparently rich, and yet she lives in a smallish house, surrounded by people who seem to both help her out and also depend on her. If asked a personal question, she just pretends she didn’t hear it.
Naturally, by the end of the book, all will be revealed, lessons are learned, etc. This is a charming, life-affirming novel in the mold of Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove, which also featured a curmudgeon whose life is changed by his neighbors (though in this case, the younger woman is the cranky loner).