(See Part One of my review here.)
It is so curious to hear someone tell you that you are in love. Still, I was feeling expansive, so I told David, “I suppose I am, I suppose I am. Jennica brings out my—. How to put this? She makes me feel calm. She is so comfortable with the idea that fun and happiness are – attainable. Forget luaus. She got me to try – caramel-flavoured coffee. What else? She wants me to try fleece-wear. And smoothies. And – therapy. Sooner or later she’ll come out in favour of moving to Westchester. All these things that preposterous people enjoy, when Jennica recommends them, I find myself willing, and grateful. It used to be I would worry I shouldn’t have fun and be happy until I had proven I wasn’t a failure. Now I am eager to accept that I am a failure, so long as I get to have fun and be happy. And—and so long as I still get to disparage the preposterous people who actually enjoy life.”
Maynard Gogarty, p.156-7
At the book’s heart is a question – do these people deserve to be happy? Is it a natural consequence of the meet-cute formula that once these two people are together, they will be content forever? Delson tackles the intrusion of “real life” on the first flush of love with an admirable honesty, presenting their faults and hang-ups in an up-front manner but still inspiring the reader to root for the new couple.
[N.B. From here on this review gets into specific plot details, and anyone who wants to remain completely unspoiled probably shouldn’t read any further.]
The narrative suddenly jumps ahead from a comic interlude on a Hawaiian holiday in 2000 to the immediate aftermath of the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks. The invocation of 9/11 in works of fiction has gone from taboo to lazy cliché in a matter of years, but Delson sidesteps easy emotion and mawkishness (it helps that none of the book’s characters are harmed in the attacks). The frazzled, paranoid mindset of New Yorkers in the immediate aftermath is delineated with wit and humanity, as when compulsive list-maker Jennica reads out her list of worries compiled on a red-eye flight on September 17th:
REASONS I CANNOT SLEEP
(1) Dry airplane air; (2) Tiny airplane seat; (3) Fear of hijackers; (4) The heroes of Flight 93; (4a) Would I have that kind of courage? (5) Need to buy scissors & nail file;
That hoary old comedic setting – the getaway with family – is given a twist, as Maynard and Jennica are confined to a cabin with their parents while US airspace is closed. Inevitably, tensions boil over, and our happy couple is split over an initial fight that opens up the cracks in their relationship and becomes a matter of principle for both.
This puts us in an interesting position: whose side are we supposed to be on? It’s taken as a given that we’re on the side of the couple – that Maynard makes Jennica happy, and vice versa, and having seen their sadnesses and neuroses, that splitting them up would be a bad thing – but the actual territory of the argument is far more open to interpretation.
It’s easy to say the argument as a whole is down to Maynard’s jerkishness – and let’s face it, Maynard is a jerk. He’s grouchy, insufferably pompous, and obsessed with “dignity” at the expense of properly relating to people. Jennica awakens something in him, something decent, and as much as you want to shout at him for pushing her away, you can’t help but feel that it’s an essential part of his nature that’s spurring him to do so.
At the same time, his outrageous behaviour has a kind of dogged nobility. Even years later (the book was published in 2007), there’s a certain transgressive power to his remarks, which I’m sure would be genuinely shocking to anyone living in New York at that time:
Am I certain that Manhattan is where I am a native of? Because I woke up one morning and found out that I lived not in Manhattan but in—America! The New York Times was so pleased to announce the death of irony, which was almost accurate. It was the death of any discrimination at all. A holocaust upon the discriminating class, the death of Manhattan’s—un-American ability to disbelieve.
Maynard can’t abide dishonesty – his bluntness and rudeness stem, at least in part, from this trait. But he can’t see that in disregarding all convention of shared experience and empathy, no matter how sentimental and manufactured it might seem, he’s patronising Jennica and pushing her away when she needs to be reassured. It’s the kind of mistake that all couples make, and it’s heartbreaking because we have seen their inner thoughts and their struggle to make it to this stage of openness with each other.
And given Maynard’s inveterate honesty, is it ironic that the relationship is saved by a simple lie of omission? Is it a cut-price miracle, like the pigeon on the ventilator – something that we take and elevate from the mundane into the sublime simply because we have to look for meaning in our lives?
Whatever it is, the ending is everything I could have wished for; the inherent dramatic value in resolving the split is undercut by giving the last word to Jennica’s old friends, who are obviously gleeful at it and take great delight in misleading the interviewer (and the reader) before giving us the real ending. There’s a spirit of fourth-wall-breaking cheekiness to this final flourish. This happily married couple, whose sunny California-set existence serve as contrast to the typically New York romance of its central characters, get to take the stage and show us another kind of happiness. Not a better or worse kind, just different.
I’ve written far more about this book than I intended to. But I think it’s just a matter of the stars aligning. Sometimes you read a book (or watch a film, or hear an album) at the exact right time, and its contents and themes resonate with you in such a way that you want to sing its praises to everyone. Maynard and Jennica is sharp, honest, hilarious, poignant and romantic. It’s a great book about life and love, about promise and disappointments of living in a great city, and about taking every chance that comes your way.
That’s the constant dilemma of love. However much the man you’re in love with disappoints you, the only alternative is to begin afresh with some other guy. Who maybe will make you more perfectly happy, but who also maybe will just turn out to be … some other guy. If you want to stay in love, you have to learn to expect so little from it. And that was it: I wanted to stay in love.
Jennica Green, p.278