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This One Is Mine

by Maria Semple (Little, Brown; 2008)

Toward the end of This One Is Mine, Sally Parry wonders if she has not been mistaken about her brother's wife, Violet. Hitherto, she has regarded Violet as a snob masquerading as a nice person. Now she thinks Violet might be a nice person masquerading as a snob. That's a small happy ending all in itself, resolving the story of Sally and Violet in heartwarming terms. We are always cheered when literary characters revise their opinions of fellow-creatures in a positive direction. My question about Violet's true nature was slightly different. Is Violet a comic screw-up masquerading as the complex heroine of a darker, richer novel, or was it the other way round?

Maria Semple's novel is beautifully written, which is why I found it so difficult to read. Almost every sentence sparkles with the shards of broken crystal.

Before her was a wonderland of wedding presents, all shapes and sizes. They were just gigantic chunks of cardboard, of courses, but Sally's X-ray eyes saw the light blue Tiffany boxes, gold Geary's ones, and more! It was as if she had opened door number two and won the grand prize. She half expected Bob Barker to step in and hand her the keys to a brand-new convertible. The audience would lustily applaud, knowing Sally deserved it all.

In fact, what Sally deserves is a spanking — and she's about to get one. More precisely, she's about to learn that she has already been spanked but good; a blood test will turn her life inside-out. Right now, though, as she surveys the loot accruing from her disingenuous wedding to Jeremy Clark, whom for the moment we'll describe as a television sportscaster, Sally is very hard to like. We ought to feel sorry for her — a type one diabetic since childhood, her ballet career crashed by the partial amputation of a toe, Sally wants desperately to establish herself in affluent independence of her billionaire brother, a major rock producer — but Ms Semple has glazed Sally with such such a glossy opportunism that she embarrasses us almost as much as she embarrasses Violet. Sally's neediness is not the scar of deprivation but a free-standing vice. She is introduced as an operator:

Moving on to today. Sally was teaching back-to-back ballet until Maryam picked her up for the party where Sally would finally be introduced to Jeremy White. Her husband to be. Since today was so jam-packed, Sally had done her bring-a-new-guy-home sweep of the apartment last night. She went over the list one last time.

Although Sally has feelings, she does not ordinarily allow them to muzzle her shark-like acuity for the main chance. That she subverts herself by being manifestly too keen about things does not make her endearing. As Sally's bad behavior — sometimes, it is true, just behavior that ought to make her feel bad — the reader's mind may be snagged by recollections of another book about Los Angeles, a novel that would be just as funny as This One Is Mine if it weren't so very dark: Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One. Indeed, at the end of the newer novel, it's interesting to note how few levers the author would have had to pull in order to throw the ending into Waugh territory.

As I read This One Is Mine, I asked myself how much of it would have been credible or funny had it been set anywhere but in Los Angeles. Consider the following aftermath of an episode in which David and Violet are summoned to a hospital from an awards presentation at the Shrine:l

Last night, David and Violet had taken his car to and from the hospital. Back home, Violet slept, but David couldn't. He had called a taxi to take him to the Shrine to get Violet's car. That was LA for you — a voracious gobbler of time and energy over car logistics.

The best example had been ten years ago, at a Grammy party in the old Morton's. David couldn't leave until he had said hi to Mick Jagger, who was in serious conversation with some chick. David lingered a few minutes. Then, to give Mick a hint, he sat on the edge of the banquette. David overheard them feverishly debating whose car to take home. They could take both cars, but if they did, Mick would have to park his Bentley on the street, which wasn't safe, but if they left his car at Morton's, the valet would be closed in t eh morning, so maybe they should park one car on the street now, but this neighborhood had overnight parking by permit only, so they would risk getting towed... Christ, it went on for an eternity! David realized that if Mick Jagger wasn't immune to LA car bullshit, nobody was. From then on, David had always found it amusing.

This One Is Mine is stuffed with passages that betray the fact that Los Angeles — the part of Los Angeles that the well-heeled will admit to inhabiting — is a gigantic suburb with all the usual suburban logistical problems, only for the adults as well as for the children. The mothers of Scarsdale and Chevy Chase go through Mick Jagger's contortions every day as a matter of course, but it's not funny that they do. What's funny is Mick Jagger's not having a driver. When people drive their own cars, you know you're in the suburbs.

There is an idea going about that people have more privacy in the suburbs. This is nonsense. It's true that bedroom arguments are unlikely to be overheard by neighbors. But just about everything else is either plainly visible or easily inferred. Addresses, lawns, clothes, schools, and everything about automobiles from make to parking space — these are just the principal brands that every suburbanite bears on his or her back. The collision, in Los Angeles, of such routine publicity with a population so densely comprised of the famous, the very famous, and their service providers sparks a degree of self-consciousness about "minor details" that most people would find unbearably cumbersome — if they had a moment to think.

Violet Parry doesn't know it, but her life has collapsed under the weight of her status markers. David may be the millionaire, but Violet is the thoroughbred, daughter of Churchill Grace, a British import who did the right thing and drank himself to death, but not before putting his daughter through Le Rosey. To return to Sally's conundrum above, my own opinion is that Violet has breathed the life of luxe, calm, and voluptι for so long that she wouldn't know snobbery if it asked her for a campaign contribution. In any case, Violet has knocked herself out trying to be Good Enough. She has stopped writing for television in order to have a baby, and she has taken an infinitude of pains (or misdirected an infinitude of attention) upon the renovation of a Neutra house in Stone canyon. But she will never be good enough.

Violet would normally make small talk with an assistant, especially one this mousy and sweet, but she had the rare opportunity to observe David at work. He was on his headset, elbows on his knees, looking out the floor-to-ceiling window behind his desk. No checking e-mail or leafing through Billboard while on the phone. Completely tuned in. A rare quality in this day of multitasking, it had impressed Violet seventeen years ago.

She'd never forgotten that conversation outside the Murray Hill Cinema. "You're Violet Grace?" David had said, as if in disbelief. "Yes." Violet scrambled to her feet, peeled off her Walkman, and tucked the newspaper under her arm. "You already bought the tickets?" he asked, with a bluntness that belied his sad eyes. The incorrigibly self-possessed Violet found herself stammering. "I — I thought it might sell out. I got here early. I hope that's okay." He looked deep into her face and said, "I'm surprised." "Good surprised or bad surprised?" Violet was born with an instinct for people. Sure, she had the education and worldliness that was out of reach of an accountant-turned-rock-manager from Denver. But she somehow knew that David was a better person than she. "Good surprised." The glint in his eye said he was wild with approval. She craved more. She'd been chasing it ever since.

Which may have been a mistake, since chasing David's approval has worn Violet out. After giving birth to Dot (named after a Sondheim muse), Violet has not shed the extra weight, and she has begun to forget  the daily details, or follow through on them only half-heartedly. Deeply tired of her life, Violet needs some kind of shock treatment. And because Los Angeles attracts an excess of functional crazies proportionate to its excess of celebrities, Violet doesn't have to go to a hospital for her shock. She finds it in the park at the bottom of the road up her canyon.

This One Is Mine is a pair of misbegotten romances twined around one another. The only thing wrong with Sally and Jeremy is that, although Jeremy thinks he loves Sally, "romance" has nothing to do with their relationship. (There's a medical explanation!) As for Violet and Teddy, the broken-down but still arresting junkie bass player whom Violet encounters in the Museum of Television and Radio shortly after espying him in the park, Ms Semple has concocted an essay in romantic transgression that just may accomplish the incredible feat of making readers curious about having another look at Last Tango in Paris. Teddy is still young enough so that being a wreck doesn't interfere with being a satyr, but he sounds old and broken down, because his spirit is. When she isn't ravished by his reek of boue, Violet nurses fantasies of restoring him to health, fantasies that betoken nothing so much as her naοvetι. For the Teddys of this world, restoration is not an option: the outer shambles mirrors the profound one. Meanwhile, Violet and Teddy talk dirty and erupt in pyrotechnical sex.

Violet kissed him again. He answered back. "Oh God," she said. "Can we kiss forever?"

"No!" Teddy laughed and pushed his hand down her pants, beneath her underwear and slid his fingers up inside her. "God, your pussy's wet." For years, Violet couldn't get like that for David. It was unspoken, that they needed to use apit to fuck. It had been awkward and embarrassing at first, now it was just fact. "Take off your clothes," Teddy said, and pulled his T-shirt over his head.

Violet undid one button on her shirt, the the other. Luckily, she was wearing one of her new bras, a lacy confection that smooshed her breasts together to yield a fulsome, almost cartoonish cleavage. "Take that fucking thing off, he said. "Hurry it up."

You may have noticed, between all the panting, that Violet has be-here-now issues.

She lay back and hung one leg over the back of the couch. Deep in a trance, Teddy positioned himself and thrust inside her. Once, twice. He brushed his hair out of his face and pushed himself up on his hands and looked down. He was transfixed by the rhythmic penetration. Like a stupid animal, his mouth hanging open, watching.

"Fuck," he kept saying. "You're so fucking hot."

Now Violet knew: this was all she'd ever needed. Not the money, not the career, not the landmark aerie. The moment she recognized it, a panic filled her: it wasn't enough. Teddy was on top of her, fucking her hard, grunting with each thrust. They were sticky with sweat. She breathed him in. It still wasn't enough. Violet pulled his body close into hers and stuck her tongue in his mouth. It still wasn't enough. She clawed her nails deep into his back. He reached for her hand, singled out her index finger, and pushed it toward his asshole.

"Do that," he said. She stuck her finger in deep. "Like that," Teddy whispered. "I like that." She grabbed his hair with her free hand. "You fucking whore," he whispered. Teddy's cock was in her, his tongue in her mouth, her finger up his ass. There was nothing more she could do. This had to be enough. She closed her eyes.

To quote any more of this spicy scene would violate the most generous notions of fair use, but I've tried to show that Ms Semple knows what she's doing when she writes dirty. The point of the encounter on the page is to illustrate — as will happen in a page or so — that Violet is incapable of surrendering to passion without tendrils of enriching reference to, say, the Klimts at the Belvedere in Vienna.

At first, I wanted to rescue Violet from her used-up life, but then I began to like, or at least, to appreciate David Parry. He may be an asshole — who else could manage rock bands? — but he's a good man, and a smart one, too. A bit literal, perhaps. For years, Sally has been nursing an understandable grievance against Violet because Violet always gives her chocolates for her birthday. What she doesn't understand is David's taking so seriously a promise never to tell anybody about Sally's diabetes. We're not taken to David's point of view nearly as often as we are to his wife's and his sister's, but it manages to be just as entertaining as theirs, particularly in a beautifully refreshed set piece involving a sweat lodge in Ojai. The humor could have been predictable, but it's not — no small thanks to an inconvenient braid.

Not long after David's epiphany, I wanted instead to rescue Violet from This One Is Mine. I mean this as a compliment and as an encouragement to Ms Semple. Violet Grace Parry is one of the greatest potential characters that I've ever run across — potential, I say, because I wonder what she'd be like at full-length. Violet grew up "in the hills" — of LA, that is — then lived in New York for a while, and is now back in the hills. I'd like to know more about her experience of those transcontinental shifts. And Le Rosey! What was that like? For the daughter of an alcoholic expatriate in Hollywood, that is. Did she feel like Deanna Durbin playing Deanna Durbin?

I can't fault Ms Semple for withholding discussion of these matters from her comic triumph. I can hope, however, that she will try, in her next book, to clear away the netting of name-brands — even the name of the Swiss school is a name brand in Los Angeles — and allow her characters the piece of mind in which to reflect on their lives. I'm sure that Violet Parry's life has been more interesting than she knows. In Los Angeles, however, she doesn't stand much chance of stopping chasing it. It's nice to know, then, that Maria Semple has moved to Seattle. (February 2009)

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