Ready to Fall
by Claire Cook
Published by Bridge Works
208 pages, 2000
Buy it online
A Near Miss
Reviewed by Margaret Gunning
Boston writer Claire Cook thought up a clever and timely idea for her first novel, Ready to Fall, a romance in cyberspace between two middle-aged boomers. This is the sort of premise that has to be pulled off with great deftness and style if it is to avoid the pitfall of being merely gimmicky. Though the novel has some moments of genuine fun and a few glimmers of insight, it falls short of the mark, perhaps because it turns out to be fresh packaging for a rather stale idea.
Beth Riordan is a 40-ish Bostonian homemaker with a part-time job as a freelance quotation researcher (a career designed to fit neatly around the multiple demands of family). Her husband Pete stopped noticing her a long time ago, as illustrated by this scene while they get ready to go out for dinner:
He came into the kitchen to find me fully done up (hair, makeup and earrings) but still wearing my bathrobe. He looked at the same bathrobe he's been looking at for years, and actually asked, "Is that a new dress?"
Beth's three children aren't much better. Her two nubile-but-selfish teenaged daughters effortlessly draw so much male attention that Beth can't help but feel stabs of envy. And her son, the 10-year-old "baby of the family," seems lost in a world of his own. Beth tries to express her frustration to Pete: "I feel as if the only time anyone even talks to me is to complain or criticize or to place an order for something they need," to which he replies, "I think I'm getting conjunctivitis in my right eye."
Even her so-called best friend Heather is completely self-absorbed, going on one empty self-improvement kick after another and dragging Beth along for the ride. The most logical (if stereotypic) thing Beth could do at this point would be to have an affair, but since she doesn't quite dare, she finds a safer alternative. What starts off as a series of innocent e-mails to her next-door neighbor, a handsome middle-aged travel writer away on an assignment in Nevada, blooms into a secret summer romance.
The entire story is told through these one-sided e-mails to Thomas Marsh, someone she knows only slightly through neighborly contact. The fact that he is away -- far away -- seems to make him that much more desirable as a confidant and (later) a fantasy figure. As Thomas stays away longer and longer, Beth takes over the care of his lawn and dutifully feeds his rabbits. But gradually her e-mails turn from the practical to the existential in the form of long reflections on her mid-life frustration and emptiness. The Oprah-esque quick fixes pushed on her by Heather always seem to fall flat: "What if I go to all that trouble figuring out who I really am and what I really want and then I can't have it?"
As Beth pours out her soul, Thomas's responses (which we don't get to read) are shorter, farther apart and less self-revealing. He seems to find her anguished e-mails entertaining, while she treats the connection like a veritable lifeline. This inequity, glaringly obvious to the reader, is completely lost on Beth who indulges in her secret summer fantasy as if it were a drug.
There is not much plot to Ready to Fall beyond that, except for a very silly women's wilderness trip Beth goes on with Heather (but only after agonizing over whether Pete and the kids can live without her for a week). The invitation reads, "Millie and I invite you this week to find your goddess within, the part of you that makes you uniquely you, and will set you on a path of personal growth and fulfillment." On this trip, the "girls" spend most of their time exchanging weepy confidences around the campfire, not to mention grooming tips. ("We gave each other pedicures by candlelight and Traci did our makeup.") Some of Beth's deep thoughts, all recorded in detail for Thomas, include this meditation:
I am in a rerun of Gilligan's Island. I try to decide if I am Ginger or Mary Ann. In the long run, is it better to be sultry and sexy or perky and peppy? Ginger looks good now, but Mary Ann will probably age better. Plus she will have developed her personality in a way that Ginger won't feel the need to. But Ginger DOES get all the men. And the good clothes. And you certainly never see her doing any real work. She'd never risk breaking a nail. I decide that women have just talked themselves into thinking they'd prefer to be Mary Ann. We'd all really rather be Ginger.
Thomas eventually ruins the fragile summer fling by coming home, forcing Beth to realize that it is a lot more problematic to deal with a real person. Though Cook gets off some clever lines ("Everything has a shelf life, be it marriage or brussels sprouts") and has a few interesting things to say about the dynamics of female fantasy, she misses a great opportunity to satirize ludicrous things like the "goddess camp," which she actually takes seriously. In the final analysis Beth is just too ordinary and conventional to be particularly interesting (she is Mary Ann, after all), and if there really is a fascinating person inside her struggling to get out, it's hard to see it. Though the cyberspace twist gives it a veneer of timeliness, Ready to Fall is just another version of a genre popular 30 years ago with the "diary of a mad housewife" type of novel, an idea no more scintillating now than when it was fresh. | August 2000
Margaret Gunning has reviewed over 130 books but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International and Room of One's Own. She has written a novel (A Singing Tree) and a book of poems (Nonsongs and Neopsalms), and is currently at work on her second novel, Better than Life.