January 16, 2009

“This One is Mine” by Maria Semple

Reviewed by Mark Lindquist
Special to the Seattle Times

Maria Semple has lived in Los Angeles and written for television shows, including “Arrested Development,” “Mad About You” and “Ellen.” According to publicity materials, she recently “escaped” L.A. and now lives with her family on “a little island off of Seattle.”

After reading “This One is Mine” (Little, Brown and Company, 400 pages, $26.99), Semple’s first novel, you will understand why. With Joan Didion’s eye for the bleak, Nathanael West’s ear for the desperate and her own taste for the comic, Semple has penned a scathing vision of show business in a repellent La-La Land.

Her heroine, Violet Parry, appears to have the life she wanted and worked for: she’s an Emmy-winning television writer married to a fabulously successful band manager. She has a child, a nanny and a dog walker. Her husband fell in love with her because, among other things, she was “an artsy chick who read the business section.”

She gave up her career to raise children after she started identifying with the ’80s T-shirt emblazoned with the Lichtenstein-like woman “who realizes, to her horror, OH, NO, I FORGOT TO HAVE CHILDREN.” After a few years as a mommy, Violet imagines there ought to be a follow-up T-shirt, one where the woman “is finally cradling her prized baby,” but the thought bubble now reads, “IT’S ALL ADDING UP TO NOTHING.”

Still, Violet is a woman who can appreciate moments and music and driving in the hills, believing that “music sounded better on Mulholland.” She channels her dissatisfaction, as many before her have, into remodeling their large house.

Life takes a lurching turn when she meets Teddy Reyes, the broke bass player for a two-bit cover band. He’s a hustler, a mooch, an addict and he has hepatitis C.

Violet is smitten, naturally.

Though it’s never clear why exactly Violet dives into a tailspin affair with Teddy the loser, it seems to have something to do with the vibe surrounding her in a city where salespeople snub women with engagement rings smaller than three carats.

Meanwhile, her husband, David, is trying, in typical L.A. fashion, to find meaning in his life through Buddhism. This leads him to a yoga retreat where he has a breakdown of sorts in a sweat lodge, one of the funniest set pieces I’ve ever read.

In another story line, David’s off- kilter sister Sally determinedly plots to lure a savant sportscaster into marriage, something the numbers geek is equally determined to avoid.

Everyone, in other words, acts borderline loony.

This might be off-putting but for Semple’s forgiving and funny voice guiding us through the nuttiness with well-grounded prose. Unlike some former television writers who turn to novels, she employs none of the cheap tricks of her previous trade.

This is not a made-for-TV movie and it doesn’t end like one. People pay for their mistakes, as we do in life, and some of them learn lessons — understanding, forgiveness, gratitude — and live on with their scars. Some leave L.A.