In the 26 February issue of the New York Times Book Review, Ann Hodgman wound up her review of Debra Galant's exurban satire, Rattled, on a negative note.
But the novel's plotting and perceptive details are generally stronger than its characterization. Heather, especially, seems to consist of nothing but ruthless ambition punctuated by occasional, unconvincing jabs of conscience.
I reprint that because I completely disagree. Heather Peters, the major character, is the carefully-drawn figure of a woman who has lost her way in the world. Having grown up in nondescript inaffluence, and having been wounded to the core when a high-school acquaintance laughed at the plastic seatcovers on her mother's furniture, Heather has married an ambitious lawyer who will allow her to live in a world of good taste. Like all strivers, Heather thinks more about status markers than is healthy, and she has, at the beginning of the novel, allowed status anxiety to run her life. Ms Galant, a journalist, tosses Heather into a media maelstrom from which she emerges chastened but with a restored sense of proportion. I laughed as Heather kept getting herself into hotter water, but I didn't want her to be burned.
Rattled is put together with nothing less than the magnificent engineering of an entertainment by Carl Hiaasen. The story sails along far too briskly to creak, relayed by a team of interesting if not always savory folks. At the heart of the enterprise is a housing development that upsets the ecology and exposes residents to grievous bodily harm - in this case, from crotalus horridus, the timber rattlesnake. Compounding the exurban absurdity is the social absurdity of conferring "endangered" status upon a deadly reptile with few friends in creation. If Ms Galant doesn't tell us anything new about environmentalists or builders, natives or arrivistes, that's because these are destinies that actual people inhabit more or less well. Agnes Sebastian, for example, is not first and foremost a naturalist, even though she runs the local nature center and prefers the company of dumb beasts to that of human beings. She is a smart widow who, while not particularly organized, knows her way around the Internet. She emerges from the pages of Rattled as a real woman, at least as well realized as the characters in Alison Lurie's Truth and Consequences. Agnes, first and foremost, is Agnes; not a thumbnail, but someone you get to know over time.
In my case, to be sure, that wasn't much time. I swallowed the book more or less whole. It's a delight to read, studded with barely perceptible barbs such as the following crack, made about Heather: "All she asked was a fair advantage." Skim the book and you'll miss jewels like that. Ms Galant knows how to set up more extended fun as well.
The office of Pine Hills Elementary was like Hong Kong at lunch hour. Phones rang, children waited for mothers to bring forgotten sandwiches, teachers lined up to use the photocopier, secretaries put mailo in slots, deliverymen arrived with packages, sick kids waited for the nurse. But when Connor Peters walked in, a hush descended. The two secretaries exchanged glances. Mothers bringing in book reports or coming to pick up children with earaches stopped in their tracks. The silence was finally broken when a little girl with skinned knees pointed a pudgy index finger and said loudly to her mother, "That's the one!"
"Ssshh," her mother said.
The little girl meant, that's the one who runs around after girls on the playground and hugs them, who looks up their dresses when they go on the swings, who barges in front of people in the cafeteria line.
But the mothers and the secretaries recognized something different. Word had spread fast through the halls of Pine Hills Elementary, and by now everybody knew. This was the boy whose mother had been led away from Back-to-School Night in handcuffs.
So permit me to thank Ms Galant for taking the trouble to post a comment to my review of the Review. I enjoyed her witty and polished book, and I look forward to her next adventure.