Back at the dawn of the chicklit era, authors like Helen Fielding and Melissa Banks were getting a lot of attention (even though I still remain confused by Melissa Banks’ inclusion on the chicklit list). However, a select, savvy group of readers were hip to an author who largely slipped under the media radar: Marian Keyes.
Keyes is an Irish author who writes bitingly funny, painfully real stories about modern day Irish women and the troubles that foil them. Keyes’ depiction of her country – much drinking, smoking, drugging, shopping, and middle class mores – is short on the mystical, magical, woo-woo that passes for Ireland in romance fiction. Since I much prefer the Irish of The Pogues, I couldn’t be happier.
Keyes’ Irish roots are so much a part of her work that even when she sets a novel in New York, as she does with Anybody Out There?, her latest installment in her chronicles of the troubled, messed-up, scrappy Walsh family, you sense the faith (and, yes, begorrah) of the nation on every page. In previous novels, we’ve had Claire Walsh, whose husband left her the day she gave birth to their daughter, Rachel Walsh, who equates a trip to rehab with a visit to the spa, and Maggie Walsh, who runs away from home when she discovers her husband is having an affair.
Anybody Out There? tells the story of Anna, middle sister and middle daughter. Anna, former space cadet, has pulled her life together, is living in New York, has a great job, and has found, Aidan, the man of her dreams. Her life is picture perfect – except, when the novel opens, she’s lying in bed at her parents’ home, recovering from a serious accident. Her face is scarred, arm is broken, nails are missing on one hand, and her knee is messed up to the point that her mother had no choice but to put her in the “good” front room – a room previously off-limits to the family except on very special occasions. The entire family is tiptoeing around Anna, afraid to say the wrong thing, afraid to speak anything close to the truth, afraid that she’s one breath away from total mental collapse.
As the story unfolds in a mix of current events and flashbacks, you begin to realize why. Anna’s perfect life is over, and she can’t come to grips with the fact that Aidan has left her. She leaves countless messages on his voicemail and sends him endless streams of emails, describing her “kooky” outfits and gossip from the office. She refuses to stop contacting him, even though he never responds.
At this point, I was convinced I knew it all, that I’d read this book before. Keyes slowly reveals the truth (but doesn’t drag it out too long), and I was wrong. Even though it was a sad wrong, boy, was I happy that Keyes took me in another direction. Love it when authors mess with my mind — I felt a little like I’d been punched in the brain. Anna’s attempts to talk to Aidan soon devolve into pathetic and heartbreaking, more so when the reader understands that he’s gone for good. Anna can send all the breezy emails she wants; it’s not going to change the situation. Only supposed proof of his betrayal of her can change her course.
Characters from previous novels make appearances (and here I advise you to read the stories in order because they build upon each other, though this not absolutely required), and, breaking with long-established tradition, Keyes does not make them saccharine-sweet and picture-perfect. These characters started out flawed and, while growth and maturity occurred, they are still flawed. I will say, however, that I agree with Mrs. Walsh – Rachel was a lot more fun when she was on the drugs.
The more-they-change-the-more-they-stay-the-same approach to characterization that Keyes uses emphasizes the fact that, as evidenced in previous novels, Anna’s sisters don’t know her very well. Seen through their eyes, Anna is a bit of a waif – an image that she wincingly acknowledges cultivating. She spent far too many years thisclose to modern day hippie, casually disappearing for months and dealing drugs for extra money (though she personally does not cop to the latter). She discovered that avoiding reality was a good way to disappear in the midst of her boisterous family – the Walshes are the type of family who consider staid, cardigan-wearing daughter Maggie to be their collective dirty secret.
Anna in previous novels couldn’t have found her way out of a paper bag – and if she did, she’d get lost once she emerged. Anna in this book is together in ways that you never would have imagined – even as she’s trying to stitch her life back together. Her job at a public relations agency means that she’s working on high profile campaigns for big-name cosmetics firms, and even as she tries to contact Aidan, she’s burying herself in work and performing on a high wire. She is successful, if underpaid. And she somehow knows how to sell cosmetics to the people who need to be sold: beauty editors. Even when she’s got nothing, it’s more than most people in her office.
What I really enjoy about Marian Keyes’ work is that she’s not afraid to go to the worst places with her characters. In her world, there is a place after rock bottom — you have to hit that before things start looking up. Anna keeps plugging away at her life, safe in her twilight zone, secure in the knowledge that she has a plan to contact Aidan. Every step of the way, she’s thwarted, but that’s okay, because she has an ace up her sleeve. And then the ace turns into a joker. An expensive joker. And Anna has to understand that she needs to get over the past. That’s when Anna, professionally, steps up and gets what she deserves. She’s still lonely as hell, but at least she’s commanded the respect of her boss. It’s a victory hard won after months of emptiness.
Marian Keyes has a phenomenal first person voice – her efforts at writing in the third person lack the warmth and immediacy and, well, snark, of her first person novels – so she cheats a bit when it comes to subplots in Anybody Out There. While Anna faithfully narrates the trials of her dirtbag-attracting friend Jacqui, she also needs to communicate the insanity happening back in Ireland. Her youngest sister Helen is a private investigator, and Mammy Walsh has revealed a heretofore unknown interest in becoming a superhero. Anna needs to keep tabs on her family.
Thus Keyes turns to our old friend e-mail to chronicle the mishaps of two women who are trying to solve mysteries involving a crime lord’s wife and malicious dog poop (Helen’s on first, Mrs. Walsh is on second). Helen’s messages read like the screenplay she’s secretly writing, while Mammy emerges full of inappropriate quote marks (Anyway, Helen was as “sick” as a “dog.”) and confused spellings (she puzzles over what it means to “up the auntie”).
The farcical nature of the Ireland Walsh family adventures lightens the dark, sad nature of the story. And Anna’s reaction to her sister’s outrageous tales of evil villains and flat-abbed bodyguards assures the reader that underneath her pain is her true self, waiting to re-emerge. It all weaves together very nicely – I thought the ending was a little too pat. Be warned: while this is a love story, it is not a romance in the traditional sense of the word.
Keyes’ previous novels read as if they’d been de-Irished for the American market. Local dialect was largely eliminated (this is probably a reflection on the faith the publisher has in the reading public). This novel, both in Anna’s narration and the Walsh emails, is filled with casual slang and expressions that remind the reader that we’re not dealing with Americans here. The gossipy back-and-forth interactions between the extended family of characters is just that much more fun when it feels like everyone is speaking in his or her native tongue.
Now, I know that I’ve alluded to my impatience with never-ending series in the past (though not a direct quote from me, I imagine I’ve said something along the lines of, “Stop. For the love of romance, stop! Not every character and their antecedents and distant relations needs his or her own book!”). I am going to make one exception here: Helen Walsh, the youngest sister, is mean, cranky, beautiful, and fearless. She is currently working as a private investigator – years of spying on your sisters can pay off – and just received a comeuppance of sorts. Though, in true Helen style, she turned the situation around. And I will be stunned if Keyes isn’t plotting a book featuring Helen. One that potentially features Mrs. Walsh as Helen’s sidekick. Lucy and Ethel have nothing on these two.