In a note at the end of this book, Ellen Meister describes how she came up with the idea for the novel while immersed in another writing project. Meister, “too excited to put it on the back burner,” put aside her other effort to write this book instead.
And her concept sounds, at first, just great. What if Dorothy Parker came back to earth in the present day to visit a young woman who was also a writer, and to interject her thoughts and observations on a world that has changed so much – and yet so little – from the world Parker herself inhabited, during her heyday in the Jazz Age?
Nice work, as the song goes – if you can do it.
Meister certainly gives this novel everything she’s got. She creates a main character, Violet Epps, a talented but excessively retiring movie critic, and peoples the cast around Violet with many characters, major and minor: a dead sister, a needy niece, a potential love interest-slash-kung fu teacher, a temperamental boss, an endearing co-worker, an upstart of an office assistant – not to mention Parker herself. (If you are guessing this adds to the novel’s length, it does. This is not a quick read.)
Parker, of course, needs no introduction. She was one of the ringleaders of the Algonquin Round Table, known for her scathing wit, pointed critical pieces, smoking and drinking, and – supposedly – numerous love affairs.
Some of her barbs were hilarious and apt. Others, when you know something of her life, seem sad. A few were so risqué, even vulgar, they probably don’t belong in a family newspaper. Any collected volume of her poetry and prose will quickly give you an idea of why Parker is so memorable, even today.
Here, though, Meister, who spends a great deal of time and effort describing how it is that Parker would come to cross paths with Violet Epps – there is a big to-do with a missing guest register from the Algonquin – doesn’t breathe life into the character of Dorothy once she is walking around on the page.
This Dorothy drinks unceasingly, she seems sad and preoccupied; she spends a good deal of time “helping” Violet by sending emails in her stead and interfering in her job and love life. Here, Mrs. Parker confers with Violet about the computer the movie critic uses:
“I’ve seen people using these things in the Algonquin,” she said, pointing to Violet’s laptop. “But I’ve never really understood what it was all about.”
Violet took a seat at the desk and opened her notebook computer. “I’ll show you,” she said, and clicked the document she had been working on.
“Is this the Internet?” Mrs. Parker asked, peering over her shoulder.
“This part is more or less a glorified typewriter. I type documents in here and can then use the Internet to send them.”
And so it goes, with Dorothy Parker sounding at times like a dockworker and at other times more like Queen Elizabeth than Myrna Loy.
In other scenes, Parker counsels vocal anger and wild, quick sexual relations as the answer to nearly all of Epps’ problems.
This is a troubling fact about modern fiction about women: so often, rage is portrayed as the way to happiness, self-fulfillment and self-esteem.
When Dorothy Parker actually takes over the body of Violet Epps, the scenes of the transition come off as wrenching and unhelpful for poor Violet.
This novel seems to want to be fresh and frank and light-as-angel-cake in some places, but it veers into near-tragedy in others, in ways that don’t serve the narrative well.
Violet’s niece has a serious illness, she goes missing without her medication, and Parker is involved in that denouement – as well as in the twists and turns of Violet’s relationship and custody case.
It’s sad this book isn’t a dazzler. It wants to be. It tries very hard to be. It’s hard not to love a book with that title, alone.
Meister is a solid writer, though, who has published “Secret Confessions of the Applewood PTA,” among other books. She will likely shoot right past this book in her next project – which, if she holds true to form, she’s probably halfway through already.
Farewell, Dorothy Parker
By Ellen Meister
308 pages, $27
Charity Vogel is a News reporter and the manager of the News Book Club.