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Lolly Winston's Good Grief

Labeling Lolly Winston's debut novel Good Grief as "chick lit" misses the point, even though her publishers are pulling double shifts to convince you otherwise.

Despite the pink bunny slippers on the book's baby blue cover and the dust jacket copy that begins, "In an age in which women are supposed to be high achievers," Winston's 36-year-old heroine Sophie Stanton reminded me less of an older sister of Bridget Jones and more of the distant Northern California cousin of Maggie Moran from Anne Tyler's Breathing Lessons. Sophie isn't here to look pathetic while pining for a mate (she finds one but it's not really the point of the story), but to illustrate that one deserves happiness no matter how long it takes to get there. That the bulk of Good Grief takes in Ashland, Oregon instead of midtown Manhattan further convinced me that its literary neighborhood was Small Town Humanism (with co-mayors Tyler and Richard Russo) instead of the Lit that sounds like chewing gum.

Sophie Stanton is a frustrated public-relations professional in Silicon Valley whose husband Ethan has just died of cancer. For Sophie, there's not a shred of support anywhere. Her needling mother-in-law wants to expunge the memory of her son as soon as possible, her grief therapy group and psychiatrist annoy the hell out of her, and her snippy boss is a verb away from firing her after she bungles a media briefing about the company's new scrotal patch.

Sophie doesn't quite go loopy but retreats into a cocoon of junk food and bad TV, and she receives a three-month leave of absence after showing up to work in her pajamas without realizing it. OK, so maybe she does go a bit loopy. But when her best friend from college offers her lodgings in Ashland, Sophie is clear-headed enough to pack up for quieter, friendlier pastures.

What follows seems to be a faithful addition to the Leave-Town-And-Start-Over canon. After a series of lousy jobs, roommate quarrels and bad dates, Sophie discovers a hidden talent for baking fabulous desserts. She opens a bakery, moves into an old boarding house, takes in a troubled teen named Crystal she meets through Big Brothers/Big Sisters and hooks up with a handsome actor named Drew. None of it blinds you with originality but Winston is one step ahead of our judgments and makes a joke about it (on what might happen in Ashland, Sophie doubts that "Harry Connick in tight faded jeans, a faithful hound at his side" is on the way anytime soon). I took this as a sign from the author to forget plot gyrations and focus on style and warmth. It worked.

Sophie's early dialogue has the jagged intelligence of a person who's spent a lot of time focused on the mundane because it keeps her from cracking up. However, as Sophie moves out from under the weight of Ethan's death, Winston loosens the reins on Sophie's speech, sentences become longer, with the heads intact instead of bitten off. Whereas she earlier dismisses her Silicon Valley boss as a "size-two jackhammer," her put-down of Chef, another repugnant boss, shows a character more comfortable in her own skin to breathe and observe.

"'Sophie has a special talent,' Chef says, leaning flirtatiously towards Ruth. His belly swells under an aloha shirt that hangs over his khaki shorts. Bits of sugar cookie crumbs dot his black beard. Oh sure. Now I have a special talent. Ruth has a way of bringing out the Eddie Haskell unctuousness in men."

This choice of nuanced ordinariness edges Winston toward the Tyler and Russo camp and away from Helen Fielding (See: Bridget Jones on a firepole). In the world of Small Town Humanism, nothing much happens that you couldn't imagine happening to you. The strength is therefore less in their escapism and than in their wise observations of character, place and human micro-drama. To that end, Winston includes several nice scenes that showcase nothing but behavior warmly observed: When Sophie sells her house in San Jose to a handsome divorcee named Steve, who asks her out, their dinner turns into a quiet conversation about loss and grief and avoids the one-night-stand left turn plainly in view.

Winston is a young writer and has a little ways to go before she reaches the skills of her influences. She hasn't developed the confidence to pace her story at an amble and let it emerge naturally rather than goosing it with incident every 20 pages. The opportunity to make Ashland tangible slips away and a scene involving a bakery opening, a false marriage proposal and a food fight is embarrassingly overdone. But give her time. Good Grief is funny, thoughtful and smart, an indicator of stronger books to come. It and Lolly Winston deserve better than a segregated readership and an old pair of bunny slippers.

Good Grief
By Lolly Winston
Warner Books; ISBN: 0446533041
Hardcover: 342 pages (April 2004)