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From Oregon to LA, dramas that steer clear of formula

Going to Bend
By Diane Hammond, Doubleday, 304 pp., $23.95

The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters
By Elisabeth Robinson
Little, Brown, 327 pp., $23.95

Diane Hammond and Elisabeth Robinson have written first novels that are fresh and original, with the elusive but unmistakable flavor of authenticity.

A glance at the jacket of Hammond's "Going to Bend" made me fear I was in for another three-hankie female-bonding novel, but the first page promised something much better, and subsequent pages delivered. Hammond writes simple, eloquent prose. She has created a memorable cast of characters. "Going to Bend" surprises again and again.

The story unfolds in Hubbard, Ore., a small coastal tourist town, beautiful but down at the heels, its main street lined with gift shops, candy shops, kite shops. It's "one of those places where you could still have your choice of oceanfront trailers -- old rusting aqua and silver tunafish-cans with moisture problems."

Petie Coolbaugh and Rose Bundy, friends since childhood, are young mothers struggling to keep poverty at bay. Prickly Petie, "small and hard and tight and flammable, like the wick of a candle," is married to the serially unemployed Eddie. They have two sons, 5-year-old Loose, who seems bent on living up to his given name, Lucifer, and 8-year-old Ryan, shy and strange. Gentle Rose, "a big, soft woman of calm purpose and measurable serenity," is single, with a teenage daughter, Carissa. Rose has an uncertain relationship with Jim Christie, a fisherman who's seldom at home.

Petie and Rose are happy for the opportunity to supply gallons of homemade soups to the new cafe in town, Souperior, owned by Nadine and Gordon Erickson, 40-ish fraternal twins who, for reasons that gradually emerge, left the pleasures and terrors of Los Angeles for a quieter life in Hubbard. Nadine asks Rose to compile some local recipes as a way to promote the restaurant. Gordon is impressed by Rose's writing and sends her manuscript to a friend in publishing, who offers a contract. Rose insists that Petie illustrate the book. The women's lives begin to change. When Petie comes upon Jim and Carissa in a trailer in the woods, she jumps to the wrong conclusion. It's an understandable reaction, given Petie's own history of abuse at the hands of her alcoholic father.

But this is not a gooey tale of salvation through soup. "Going to Bend" is about about everyday survival, trying to live without bitterness, to love difficult people, to be decent and generous even when it hurts. Hammond is particularly good at portraying the pettiness of small-town life and at delineating the particulars of near-poverty -- beat-up cars, rundown houses, secondhand clothes, anxiety about the price of frozen chicken parts, fear that any minute you'll hit bottom. "Going to Bend" is as complicated, ambiguous, and unpredictable as life.

Robinson's "The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters" consists entirely of letters, e-mails, and faxes written by Olivia Hunt, a Hollywood producer whose life leaps from one crisis to another. In the opening pages Olivia relates, in a letter to a friend, how she was working on the fourth draft of a suicide note when her father called to tell her that her younger, just-married sister, Maddie, had leukemia. In the space of a few paragraphs Robinson switches from comedy -- the suicide note is gallows humor -- to tragedy. That sets the pattern for the rest of the novel. It's a difficult balancing act, but Robinson pulls it off, veering smartly from movie-business absurdity to family grief and back again. It's remarkable that she does it all, and does it masterfully, using the difficult epistolary form.

Olivia drops everything and heads back to her hometown, Shawnee Falls, Ohio, determined to be a source of strength for her sister. She soon finds that trying to manage Maddie's illness is more complicated, and infinitely more emotionally wrenching, than producing a movie. Olivia commutes back and forth from Hollywood to Ohio, from family tragedy to professional crisis. She has been working with a difficult director, trying to put together a big-budget version of "Don Quixote." Her breezily unctuous letters to an assortment of movie power wielders have a hollow ring of Hollywood truth, and are hilarious. ("Dear Mel: Just wanted to say hi. It's been a while. You were great in 'Conspiracy Theory.' I loved it.") Robinson, a screenwriter and producer, clearly has learned the ins and outs of Hollywood boot-licking firsthand. When Robin Williams and John Cleese agree to star, Olivia's career appears to be making a big comeback, but nothing is easy in the movie business, or in this novel.

Olivia's relentlessly energetic voice drives the action. She is by turns brash and self-pitying, cynical and nave, likable and annoying. As Maddie's illness progresses, Olivia tirelessly pours out her thoughts and feelings to family and friends, revealing a new, hard-won maturity. Robinson writes amusingly about the movie business, and she tosses in an old and a new romance for Olivia, but the heart of this sad and very funny novel is the relationship between the two sisters.

Diane White writes every month about new light and popular fiction.

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