Man, high school. Could anything be worse? Seriously, open heart surgery versus high school. Which would you rather go through twice? Then there are the reunions. Did you go to yours? If you’re over 21, it’s not a rite of passage. It’s masochism.
Deirdre Martin’s The Penalty Box starts the night Katie Fisher attends her ten-year reunion. Cinderella-like, Katie has transformed from fat and nerdy into gorgeous and nerdy. Also a woman who, despite a college education, doesn’t get basic nutrition. Of course, her high school dream-boy, Paul van Dorn, digs the skinny, confident (used advisedly) Katie.
I wanted to relate to Katie. She’s my kind of heroine: sarcastic, funny, and smart. But she felt inconsistent. She’s a sociology professor, but her interest in human nature is almost non-existent. You could say she’s too close to her subject matter, but Katie comes off as incurious. Martin throws a transsexual at Katie, and it’s matter-of-course, they’re buddies almost immediately. Seriously, a transsexual. Hello? You go there otherwise you don’t introduce the character. I don’t know about you, but I know exactly one transsexual, and, frankly, I have a lot of questions. It’s not business-as-usual.
I never believed in Katie. I know fat. I know nerd. I even, to some extent, know lording it over at a reunion. You want to, you have to, otherwise why bother? I never knew Katie. And this is because she suffered from too much story. She has fighting poorly-defined mother issues, father issues, an addict sister, nephew issues, belated girlfriend bonding, awesome sex, insecurity, food issues, body image issues, life-balancing problems, distractingly poor villains, and, frankly, cluelessness. Too much for one story, or at least this story.
Paul suffered from lack of point of view. In another story, the high school athlete who made good before losing it all would be, well, the story. Falling from grace is great fiction, pulling yourself up is even better fiction. This is a guy who has brain damage. A guy who lost the dream. A guy who hit rock bottom. This is a guy who needs a story. Instead, Paul played fantasy hero to a seriously neurotic chick. He deserved better.
Paul notes that Katie has issues, and I couldn’t agree more. I kept wondering what he was getting out of the relationship. In addition to Katie’s never-ending string of problems, Paul had the special joy of being analyzed and insulted by Katie at every turn. Half the time, it didn’t seem like she respected his choices. Fun.
Katie’s calorie counting also grew tedious, mostly because it didn’t feel natural for the character. I get that women have unhealthy relationships with food, but, please, this woman is supposedly smart. She runs five miles a day. She can eat a few crackers with cheese without hysterics. The guy was trying to be romantic.
The most interesting character in the story is Katie’s sister, Mina, who spends much of the novel in rehab. Martin pushed her characterization and let Mina be naturally unlikeable. Contrast this bold move with the character of Liz, Katie’s high school nemesis and Paul’s high school girlfriend. So much potential to exploit; so little potential exploited. Liz hit the ground bitchy, but her motivation, reasoning, behavior – right up to the point where she makes a rather tail-between-legs exit – are unclear. She’s just a bitch to be a bitch. And that makes her boring.
It also makes her role as a catalyst for plot turns feel contrived. Martin pre-loaded her conflict in early scenes – Katie: fat issues, Katie: sister issues, Paul: premature end to career, Paul: thinks with the other brain. You know right off the bat how Liz is going to drive a wedge between Paul and Katie. Given that Liz has money and status, her motivation for pursuing her high school boyfriend is sketchy. Thus her role as an antagonist is sketchy. What did she hope to gain? I have no clue.
Throughout the story, Martin leaves plot threads untied. What was up with Liz? That’s a lot of pointless hatred to carry for ten years. Why didn’t Katie’s unhealthy body image get addressed? Freaking out over calories is just plain bizarre. You learn to handle food. What was the real problem with Katie’s mom? Mina’s pretty angry at her, let’s talk about it. What about Paul’s absent family? Who are they? They live in town, why aren’t they in the story?
But, for my money, the biggest hole in the plot relates to Katie and Mina’s father. So he died young. That doesn’t fully explain why Katie gorged herself. It doesn’t fully explain why Mina drugged herself. It doesn’t really explain anything. The dead dad as motivation felt more like a completed box on a character worksheet than a fully-developed reason for behavior issues.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that there was a key element missing from this book: passion. Martin didn’t delve deeply enough into her characters and their lack of passion left them flat on the page. I’m told that Paul misses playing professional hockey, but I don’t really feel it. Martin skates away from intense emotional exploration (yeah, I know, couldn’t resist). Katie’s calorie-counting, her beloved job as a sociology professor, even her favorite skim-milk lattes – none of these seem rouse much in the way of genuine feeling for Katie. With so much story being juggled, I got the sense that these characters were going through the motions.
Now I’m going to veer off course. I know that typos are not the fault of the author, but they do throw me out of a book. It was the little things sprinkled throughout the first three chapters – changing spellings of a name on the same page, a clear case of a punctuation screw-up, and, then, the screeching “breaks” of a car. I tossed the book down, totally thrown off track. You don’t notice good copy-editing, but you sure notice lousy copy-editing.
This was a book I wanted to like more, especially because there were so many great moments. Martin is a good writer, tosses off snappy dialogue with aplomb, and took her characters in a few new directions. For every predictable moment (hey, I’m having sex in my girlhood bedroom, “Hi, Mom!”), moment, there were surprises (seduction-killed-by-drunk-heroine-vomiting). But I couldn’t stay engaged. I get the sense that Martin tried to cram too much story into her book, and things fell apart accordingly.