By John Dicker
ANGELS, by Marian Keyes. William Morrow, 387 pp. $24.95.
Poor Maggie Walsh. In less than 24 hours she learns of her husband’s affair and is fired from her job at a Dublin law firm. In “Angels,” Marian Keyes returns to the happy-go-unlucky Walsh sisters of her best-selling “Watermelon” and “Rachel’s Holiday this time focusing on Maggie, the family’s fallen paragon of sense and stability.
Unable to stomach her mother’s sympathy, her father’s emotional incompetence and her sister’s histrionics, Maggie hightails it west. Not to Galway, but to that other cultural capital o’er the foam, where her best friend, Emily, is struggling to stay afloat as a screenwriter. It is during an extended vacation in Los Angeles that Maggie’s post-marital epiphanies froth over during a series of adventures more typical of a frat boy’s life than a 30-something Dublin professional’s.
It doesn’t take long for the bewildered Maggie to be seduced by Tinseltown’s babe-ocracy. The culture of sun, surf and self-absorption make easy work of a woman like Maggie, who has glimpsed little of life beyond the confines of middle-class Dublin. Emily and her friends — Lara the lipstick
Lesbian, Troy the oleaginous Hollywood playboy, and Justin, an actor bent on cornering the market for “expendable fat guys” — offer Maggie a crash course in L.A. etiquette. With their help, and through the vicarious adventure of Emily’s life in the screen trade, Maggie begins to feel at home in the land of smoothies, smudge sticks, and Hollywood hyperbole.
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“Angels” may be the work of an Irish writer, but its themes are as American as Manifest Destiny. Like a pilgrim of self-actualization, Maggie travels west to escape misery and quickly proceeds to reinvent herself. The failings of her nine-year marriage, the tragedy of back-to-back miscarriages, and her own culpability in self-deception coalesce in the lucidity of hindsight. As she accompanies Emily on script meetings and power lunches, she finds a new confidence — which tanks once she suffers the consequences of shagging most of Emily’s circle of friends (not excluding Lara).
Author Keyes flirts with worthy material in her attempt to explore the implications of Irish women’s freedom to control their own destinies. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to save this novel from its own brand of monotony.
Maggie’s casual first-person voice starts out whimsical but quickly grows tiresome when her every thought is shared with the reader. No conversation is too innocuous, no trip to Starbucks too banal to make its way into these pages. Keyes’s quips are neither funny nor profound enough to merit these constant disruptions of an already pokey story. And her prose, with its pat dialogue and rampant hyphen abuse of the too-lazy-to-write-in-complete-sentences variety, doesn’t help pick up the slack. No doubt the culture of Los Angeles dredges up body-image issues for even the most self-assured woman, but Keyes’s Maggie milks the thin-fat jokes until they’re sour. Equally bothersome is the author’s infatuation with the sorriest of American idioms: “You Go Girl,” and “Talk to the hand” are deployed like some sort of ethnographic discovery, rather than long buried buzzwords. Topping out the cliches are ethnic sidekicks: a madcap Russian hairdresser and a Mexican maid, both of whom speak broken English and are as boring as they are offensive. And her portrayal of the Hollywood landscape as vapid and success-obsessed breaks no new ground.
While Keyes does not hype her book as a work of Jonathan Franzen-sanctioned literary fiction, its accessibility and popular appeal do not excuse its shoddy storytelling. Even the laziest of readers will hanker for room to think — each plot twist is foreshadowed with the subtlety of a high school marching band.