Monday, February 04, 2013

Love is a canoe

The bones of marriage have been picked over and sucked clean by a long succession of writers over the years. There may not much that is new to say on the topic but there are still fresh ways to approach it as US author Ben Schrank proves with his tender, wry third novel Love Is A Canoe (Text, $37).
This story twines together the lives of three strangers. Widower Peter Herman is the author of a corny, decades-old self-help book called Marriage Is A Canoe, which is centred on the homilies shared by his grandfather during a childhood summer spent fishing on a lake in upstate New York.
Emily Babson is an uptight New Yorker and lifelong fan of the book whose real-life marriage to charismatic bicycle-designer Eli is failing to live up to her expectations.
And Stella Petrovic is the ambitious young publishing executive who brings the pair together when she launches a competition to help breathe new life into the old title.
The narrative is dotted with sample chapters from Peter’s deliciously clichéd book. Among the gems: “Your marriage is sacred. When you are together, be with each other”.
Still it’s clear the man himself - with wandering hands and a weakness for the bottle – has failed to live up to his own platitudes and now, as he hesitates over a chance at late-life love, is no wiser than the next-person. How can he help Emily, so desperate to have Eli be something he is not, while also fulfilling his obligations to his publishing house and its head honcho Helena who is fearsomely charming or charmingly fearsome depending on whether she likes you or not.
Shrank’s characters are mostly recognisable as “types” – publishing types, creative Brooklyn types, controlling Type A personality types – possibly intentionally so because he has a lot of fun with them. But it’s the small touches that really bring this satire to life; in particular the way people talk to each other. For instance Peter’s girlfriend, Maddie never uses any kind of contraction in her speech and somehow this tells you all you need to know about each her.
There are some gorgeously turned phrases. Schrank describes the unnerving Helena as “smelling of drycleaning and too much foundation” and her assistant Lucy as “so young that her office clothes clashed with her face.”
By day he is a book publisher so you can take it that Schrank’s skewering of the industry is spot on although I suspect most of us will miss a good few of the in-jokes. He is also emotionally literate and Love Is A Canoe functions as a cautionary tale about relationships and expectations; with Schrank adroitly mocking his characters yet still making sure we care for them.
I might have preferred a messier ending than the reader-pleaser Schrank gives us but otherwise this clear-eyed, engaging novel is a winner.

Nicky Pellegrino,(right), an Auckland-based author of popular fiction, is also the Books Editor of the Herald on Sunday where the above review was first published on Sunday 3 February, 2013.
Her latest novel When In Rome is set in 1950's Italy and was published in September 2012.

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