Tuesday, May 19, 2020

"By the Book"

Debut author Amanda Sellet had a previous career in journalism, during which she wrote book reviews for The Washington Post, personal essays for NPR, and music and movie coverage for VH1. She has an M.A. in Cinema Studies from NYU and spent a year in England as au pair to an actress who has played in her share of period dramas. These days she lives in Kansas with her archaeologist husband and their daughter.

Sellet applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, By the Book: a Novel of Prose and Cons, and reported the following:
The sixty-ninth page of By the Book finds our heroine, Mary Porter-Malcolm, at a party with new friends Arden, Lydia, and Terry. It’s Mary’s first proper social outing since transferring to public high school and falling in with a more rarefied crowd, and she’s anxious to make a good impression. And yet she can’t help being herself: a person who introduces Theodore Dreiser novels into casual conversation.
I didn’t need to hear any more. “It’s like An American Tragedy.”

“I don’t know if I’d go that far,” Lydia said. “Yes, it’s a total dick move—”

“That’s the name of a book,” I explained.

Arden pulled out her phone, swiping several times before looking up at me. “I’m ready.”

Lydia frowned at her. “What are you doing?”

“Taking notes. Go ahead, Mary.”

“It’s about this guy named Clyde, who’s really into this rich girl but figures she’s out of his league because he’s working class, so he gets together with someone from the factory where he works. Only then the rich girl does notice him, but when Clyde tries to dump his girlfriend, she tells him she’s pregnant.”

“Dang,” Arden whispered, pausing in her typing.

“That’s not all. Horrible, wishy-washy Clyde takes the poor pregnant girl sailing, and she ends up drowning.”

“He murdered her, didn’t he?” Terry asked.

“That part is sort of ambiguous. In his mind it was an accident, but Clyde isn’t the most self-aware guy on the planet. He spent the first part of the day thinking how great it would be if she wasn’t around anymore, and the second part not trying very hard to save her when she fell overboard.”

Lydia narrowed her eyes at Preston, the Perfumed Philanderer, who was demonstrating his virility by hoisting his non-girlfriend in the air. “Tell me he didn’t get away with it.”

I drew a finger across my neck.
This snippet offers a telling snapshot of the four major characters and their group dynamic. Mary backs up her snap judgments with classic lit; Arden is constantly on the lookout for inspiring life lessons; Lydia combines skepticism with a thirst for justice; and Terry sees the world as a crime scene waiting to happen. Although By the Book is generally classified as a rom-com, friendship carries equal weight in the plot, so I’d chalk this up as a win for the predictive power of the Page 69 Test.

Also present in this selection is one of my favorite running gags: Mary offering highly subjective plot summaries of classic novels, like a one-woman SparkNotes. These were cathartic to write, especially for books I personally found crazy-making, such as Wuthering Heights or Tess of the D’Urbervilles, plus the above-mentioned Dreiser, memorably assigned as summer reading my sophomore year of high school, alongside Moby Dick and The Grapes of Wrath. Definitely not the most light-hearted week of my vacation!
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--Marshal Zeringue