Sammy’s Hill , by Kristin Gore. Miramax Books, 368 pages, $23.95.
This is how Sammy’s Hill came to be: Last spring Harvey Weinstein, the co-head of Miramax Films, ran into Kristin Gore, daughter of the former V.P., at a benefit for a charity Ms. Gore’s older sister, Karenna Gore Schiff, works with. Mr. Weinstein told Ms. Gore that he was looking for someone to write ” Bridget Jones Goes to Washington .” Ms. Gore, a former Saturday Night Live writer, said, “What a coincidence-I want to write a novel.” Mr. Weinstein said, “Then write this one.” And so was born the first work of fiction from the Gore family (not counting the offerings of that distant black-sheep cousin, Gore Vidal).
Could there be a less promising beginning for a novel? Could more compromised hands touch a work of fiction than those of a movie producer? Or less imaginative ones than those of a member of the Gore family? Not to punish the daughter for the virtues of the father, but Big Al and his next of kin seem too sensible to make good novelists. They’re statespeople, pillars of the liberal establishment, concerned public-spirited citizens who can consider the fate of the globe but not, one would think, the inner life of an individual. Good fiction requires passion, not irrefragable civility. What made Kristin think she could beat the family curse?
The protagonist of Sammy’s Hill (what a godawful title) is Sammy Joyce, a 26-year-old health-care specialist on the staff of an Ohio Senator named Robert Gray. Known to his staff as “RG,” Gray is honest and fair-minded, a man truly interested in issues. His reputation carries him onto the Democratic Presidential ticket as the running mate of Governor Max Wye. The pair win the election in November. At book’s end, RG packs up to make the trip down Pennsylvania Avenue, taking Sammy with him to the office of the Vice President, from which she will now help him tackle the health-care crisis.
Immediately one thinks of the crack Jay Leno made on the Tonight show after reading a synopsis of the novel: “Apparently, that boring gene doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Ms. Gore’s maiden effort is indeed part wonky political novel, but mostly it is Bridget Jones Goes to Washington. (One hears Mr. Weinstein exhaling in relief.) True to the archetype from which she springs-ultimately Elizabeth Bennett of Pride and Prejudice -Sammy is an awkward everygirl with a lively mind who doesn’t quite fit into society’s idea of what a young lady should be. She is too internal, too goofy, to please the masses. A self-described “dork,” she chats up telemarketers because she likes them. She has a series of goldfish she cannot keep alive; the last, having survived a power outage that froze his bowl, she dubs Shackleton.
Also true to her fictional forebears, Sammy is torn between two men: seamy Aaron Driver, a speechwriter for the sleazy and ambitious Senator John Bramen; and nice Charlie Lawton, a journalist for The Washington Post. Aaron is sexier, but all the while he’s dating Sammy he’s also keeping a bit on the side in New York. V. bad.
Sammy devotes much of her psychological energy to trying to appear competent and professional, a policy analyst for the world’s foremost representative body. Not likely: She has a gift for embarrassing herself. She first meets Charlie, the Post writer, when she accidentally knocks him over trying to back subtly out of a Senate committee briefing room. More grievously, she sends a dirty e-mail to Aaron, only to find that she’s c.c.’d it to his entire high-powered address book. Charlie, honest as Darcy, reports on it in The Post under the headline “Rx for Trouble: Health Care Aide Spreads Dirty Mass E-Mail.”
This second unpromising encounter between Charlie and Sammy does nothing to dissuade the reader that they’ll wind up together. This book has no suspense or tension, no plot twist you can’t see kicking up dust in the distance. Actually, I don’t think narrative tension is particularly important in this sort of drama; what the reader wants is sharply drawn characters. Ms. Gore, perhaps because she’s trained in the quick hits of comedy writing, doesn’t deliver. Aaron isn’t someone you’d want to screw and Charlie isn’t someone you’d want to cuddle; RG doesn’t inspire and Senator Bramen doesn’t repulse. You know what Ms. Gore is trying to do-you can almost imagine an actor doing it-but you don’t feel it.
The novel lives or dies with Sammy. Here Ms. Gore has a road map, and goodness knows she tries to follow it. Sammy often sounds like Bridget Jones: “I was disgruntled to discover, upon critical examination in my bathroom mirror, that I had not pulled off the supermodel transformation as scheduled.” At one point, she promises herself that in the next half-hour she will work on her inner peace. She gets pimples and wears an ugly sweater-a “spray of spangles around the neckline”-to an important meeting.
But whereas Helen Fielding convinces us that Bridget is not just a woman who thinks she’s a loser, but a woman who many others are certain is a loser, one never doubts for a minute that Sammy Joyce is a winner. She can talk about how intimidated she feels until America adopts a single-payer health-care system, but whether she’s having sex with the wastrel Aaron or briefing RG on the virtues of Canada’s drug-price restrictions, Samantha-like her creator-never seems less than lovable. She’s endearing while pretending she isn’t.
A curiosity in Sammy’s Hill -and by no means to the novel’s advantage-is that Robert Gray, Sammy’s boss, is the double of the author’s father. RG is “a good-looking man [whose] gray flecks … made him look distinguished.” He’s “serious about everything,” Samantha writes, “[and] it was clear that his focus was on his mission rather than himself. I realized how rare this was the more I was exposed to other politicians.” RG is what makes Sammy run, her real love. I leave it to the therapists to figure out whether such father-love is healthy for Ms. Gore; for the reader, it’s a problem. The Al Gores of this world do not make good fictional characters.
Why not? It’s the decency thing again. And it’s Kristin Gore’s fatal flaw, just as it was her father’s. Cloning Bridget Jones sounds easy, but it’s actually hard if you haven’t lived its message: The world is a cruel, lonely place and we survive in it only through acts of private generosity, the most exquisite of these being love. Bridget Jones smoked, binged, drank like a fish, bought lottery tickets and spent hours checking her messages. Sammy’s creator makes her a workaholic, the patriotic Ms. Gore’s message being that serious, public-spirited and trusting people win out in life.
That’s not a message that resonates with readers. The stunning author photo of Kristin-streaky blond hair and perfect Gore choppers-says it all. Not just about the novel, but about the November election. If George Bush beats John Kerry, it won’t be because of Teresa’s loose lips or Osama’s sleeper cells, but because of Vanessa and Alexandra, Senator Kerry’s handsome, intimidating daughters. Albert Gore was similarly graced. His triad of sirens-the alpha female Karenna, the literary Kristin and the mysterious Sarah-flanked him when he spoke, but beautiful daughters don’t help a pol connect with the crowd. In fact, no Presidential candidate with an attractive daughter has, by my reckoning, won the Presidency in the television era: Margaret Truman? Tricia Nixon? Amy Carter? Chelsea Clinton? It’s odd to think that the Bush twins, Barbara and Jenna, with their petty truancies and those bodies that not even Vogue could make look good, could be the Bush campaign’s secret weapon, but it’s true. For that matter, they also strike me as more promising novelists. At least they have issues.
It doesn’t seem fair, does it? But as RG tells Sammy when one of her drug bills gets killed in a political horse trade, “That’s simply the way it is …. End of story.” Somewhere out there, I hear Karl Rove laughing-or is it Harvey Weinstein crying?
D.T. Max will publish his first book, The Dark Eye: A Scientific and Cultural History of Mad Cow and Other Prion Diseases (Random House), in the fall of 2005.