Amanda Bright @ Home
by Danielle Crittenden
Published by Warner Books
326 pages, 2003
Chick Lit for Mommies
Reviewed by Margaret Gunning
"A fun read, perfect for poolside," proclaims a blurb from Publishers Weekly on Danielle Crittenden's chicklit-for-Mommies novel, AmandaBright@Home. While you ponder the irony of this faint praise, may I suggest you read it under the dryer at the beauty parlor, or during a break from waxing the floor in high heels and pearls. For Crittenden the reactionary has given us a novel that blasts 1950s values at us with all the subtlety of a bullhorn.
Consider the source. Crittenden previously penned a book called What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman which, in essence, proposes a simple solution to all our current woes. Just turn back the clock to that golden time when Moms stayed home, Dads brought home the bacon and everybody was happy. Conveniently, Crittenden is far too young to remember what the 1950s were really like.
The Amanda Bright of Crittenden's novel, a Washington wife with two small children named Ben and Sophie, has already relinquished her career to be a full-time Mommy -- or, wait a minute, was it really a career or just a job? "Amanda did not like to recall those days when she used to sit in her cubicle at the National Endowment for the Arts, crafting press releases for events that would not get covered, while her toddler molded clay into dinosaur families and wondered where his mommy had gone."
Ah, the guilt. It almost seems to be Amanda's raison-d'etre. Guilt drives her to relinquish her ambition ("Amanda was home because she feared the hurt and anger in fifteen years, when two sets of eyes would look upon her and mutely ask, Why did you do that to us?"), and it dogs her at home while she watches an unholy mess of broken toys, remnants of takeout meals and undone laundry pile up around her. By anyone's definition Amanda is a lousy housekeeper, but she just never seems to find the time, energy or inclination to do anything about it.
Husband Bob, a lawyer with Principles, is just too embroiled in the Justice Department investigation of a computer giant named Megabyte (anyone we know?) to sympathize very much with Amanda's plight. As a government employee, he doesn't earn the big bucks which would allow them to afford the kind of showcase home their friends all seem to have.
And oh, those friends. They're all getting facelifts in their 30s, sitting around the pool with dry martinis and comparing notes on their children's budding genius: "Sometimes I have to indulge her in ordinary children's tastes," the snooty Patricia claims.
Meanwhile, Amanda's children are just too ordinary for the rarefied, snooty world they are forced to live in. Ben is labeled "aggressive" at the private school they can barely afford, mostly for waving a peanut butter cookie under the nose of a child who might be allergic. All the while Crittenden paints him as a rough-and-tumble, "boys will be boys" kind of kid no one has the common sense to understand.
Somewhere about midway through this thing I wanted to shake Amanda for being such a ninny, so preoccupied with pleasing this bunch of shallow, narcissistic social-climbers. Are there no real people in her life? If Bob and Amanda have such burning high principles, why are they so obsessively preoccupied with appearances and climbing the ladder? Perhaps because they are the 2003 version of Ozzie and Harriet, steeped in stale conventional values that went out with the ducktail hairdo.
One of the many problems with this novel is that it can't quite decide whether to be serious or satiric. Intentional or not, there are real laughs in Amanda's forbidden attraction to a stay-at-home Dad named Alan: "For the first time she appreciated in the sinews of his arms, in the sweat faintly spotting his T-shirt, that as well as being an attentive father, he was also very much a man." He's a playwright, a sensitive male who murmurs to her, "I like seeing you angry. There's fire in you, too." The chapter in which Amanda accompanies him to the rather pathetic debut of one of his plays is laugh-out-loud funny.
But the rest of it is so painfully earnest that it doesn't quite hold together as a comedy. And Amanda is presented as so put-upon and misunderstood that the whole thing backfires and she comes across as neurotic, whiny and unlikeable. It's hard to respect a character this obsessed with what other people think of her when, in reality, they almost never do, being far too absorbed in their own little melodramas.
There are structural problems arising from the fact that the novel was originally published as a serial in the Wall Street Journal (an alarming trend that seems to be producing a lot of really bad fiction). Each chapter ends with a little "hook," the equivalent of the heroine being tied to the railroad tracks, and not all of these small cliffhangers lead to payoff. Some sections seem suspiciously like filler, or the stretching of plot points that are already perilously thin.
The book might be redeemed by one believable character, but everyone from Alan to the children to Bob to Amanda's horrible feminist mother seems to have been wrought in cardboard. The moralizing comes across as heavy-handed: "Motherhood is not something to be gotten through. It is not some fleeting phase of your life -- it is your life, and it will be, for a long, long time." Ironic that such a homily comes down from Crittenden, a Washington media pundit (or is that "pundette"?) and high-profile author who couldn't be farther away from June Cleaver if she tried.
Though I won't reveal the ending, suffice it to say that it made me groan, as all the high principles Amanda and Bob claim to live by are compromised, if not destroyed. It was a dismaying finish to a book with too few bright spots (forgive the pun) to make it worth the reading. | August 2003
Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. Her novel, Better Than Life, will be published in 2003. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.