Long Live Precocious Narrators! But Let’s Hope They Grow Up

The Wonder Spot, by Melissa Bank. Viking, 324 pages, $24.95.

Back in 1999, Melissa Bank’s first book, The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing, filled entire windows of Barnes & Noble with its rear-view image of a young woman in galoshes. Since then, Ms. Banks has been blamed-unfairly-for helping to launch “chick lit,” the trend that continues to compel publishing houses to take any crap with an unattached female protagonist, slap a kicky cover on it (preferably pink) and sluice it down the production line.

In fact, Ms. Bank’s fiction belongs to a different tradition, that of the precocious underage narrator. Literature is littered with them: Pip in Great Expectations, Quentin Compson in Absalom, Absalom!, Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye and his female equivalent, Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar. These young characters see things that adults can’t, or don’t, want to see; they’re pint-sized bullshit-detectors, spotting hypocrisy and phoniness everywhere. There’s just one problem with them: They get older.

When we first meet The Wonder Spot’s Sophie Applebaum, she’s a 12-year-old wisenheimer already capable of sophisticated aperçus. The novel opens on the unwelcome occasion of a cousin’s bat mitzvah. “We were on the exit ramp for Chappaqua when my mother turned around and smiled in a way that had nothing to do with happiness. It was her way of saying, Smile, without risking the opposite, at least from me,” Sophie observes. A typical preteen girl, she reserves most of her well-developed sarcasm for her mother: “[She] told the same stories over and over-maybe twenty-five in all; if you added them up, there were only about two hours of her life that she wanted me to know about.”

Girl’s Guide also opened with an old-for-her-years narrator, but Sophie seems a bit meaner, more barbed, perhaps because of the particularly heavy burden placed on her by her parents. “Unfortunately, we all had to face that I was not the person they wanted me to be,” says Sophie. You can’t help but admire her repeated attempts to bring this to their attention.

The problem is that Sophie not only deflects her parents’ oppressive expectations, but as The Wonder Spot progresses, she also unwittingly sheds friends, suitors and jobs because of her unflinching resistance to change. As she reaches college and enters the working and dating world, what was a premature astuteness in her as a child begins to seem naïve, an emotional stunting that she is at least partially aware of. After several false career starts, Sophie is convinced by her mother to go for an interview with a family friend who runs a Jewish newsletter. “The fifth grader in me knows that however desperate I am to get a job I am more desperate not to have this one …. [O]ut of my mouth these words come: ‘I don’t know anything about Judaism-is that a big part of the job?'” Sophie ages, but she doesn’t really grow up.

Ms. Bank’s humorous wordplay-one of the many things that should have elevated Girl’s Guide in the public perception above the excruciatingly simple-minded Bridget Jones’s Diary-is again on display in The Wonder Spot. Sophie’s older brother Jack, who goes through one girlfriend after another, begins dating a psychiatrist named Mary Pat. When Sophie joins them for dinner one night, she watches closely, then flashes her wit: “When our burgers arrive, Mary Pat ignores the extra plate brought for sharing and eats right off Jack’s. Instead of cutting the cheeseburger in half, she takes a bite, and then he does. She even uses his napkin to wipe her mouth. I am reminded of the aid organization Doctors Without Borders.”

The novel is broken into titled chapters, most of which could stand alone as discrete stories. Because of this episodic setup, many of the major events in Sophie’s life take place “offstage,” including the death of her father. Though Sophie is paralyzed by this event, other members of her family are transformed. In one of the most moving sections-called “The One After You”-Sophie realizes that her widowed mother has fallen in love with a married man, and her adolescent hardness toward her finally melts away.

Yes, there are boyfriends, too-many of them, though none threaten to alter Sophie’s personality or her addiction to nicotine (with the exception of a younger guy in a band who makes an appearance in a saccharine and unnecessary postscript). Another quibble is that although Ms. Bank only has two books under her belt, she keeps dipping back into the same autobiographical well for her setting and characters: a Jewish family from Pennsylvania, the unexpected death of a father and so on. Then again, no one gives a hard time to Rick Moody for strip-mining suburban Connecticut, or to Bruce Wagner for cruising up and down the same Hollywood boulevards, or, for that matter, to Jonathan Lethem for his love affair with Brooklyn. If only everyone were as generous and forgiving with Melissa Bank.

Ruth Davis Konigsberg is deputy editor for features at Glamour.