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Weeds In the Flower Farm
Last uploaded : Sunday 12th Jan 2003 at 20:53
Contributed by : Carolyn See



(photograph: Jo-Ann Mapson)
By Jo-Ann Mapson
Simon & Schuster. 352 pp. $24

We all remember airplanes, in the days before 9/11, when there came a welcome lull, the door to the cockpit opened, and the personable pilot came out -- to socialize, to be admired, to reassure the nervous. There was nothing to worry about: We were cruising at 37,000 feet, we were perfectly safe. The whole thing was on automatic.

Jo-Ann Mapson is a wonderful novelist (no one who has read "Hank and Chloe" will ever forget it), but her career has taken a strange turn. Her earlier, grittier novels have given way to something sappier and soapier, evolving into the kind of public library epics churned out for female readers in the first part of the 20th century.

Her "Bad Girl" novels, in particular, represent some kind of utopian vision of what life could be for women if men would only know their place -- as twinkly-legged love objects, deep-pocketed meal-tickets, gay "girlfriend" guys, charming ornaments designed to light up and enhance the lives of females everywhere. The "Bad Girls," just a bunch of swell gals living together, manifest a powerful wish-fulfillment fantasy: Couldn't we all just live together, and not have to listen to Mr. Self-Important droning on about his own tiresome opinions, or watching him bully the kids, or generate dirty laundry and then not do anything about it but complain? Couldn't we women just chip in and take care of each other, and raise children as they come, and make hot chocolate, and put together a vegetable garden? Instead of men, maybe we could have some pets on which to lavish our affection, some horses, cats and dogs, a bird or two? And the men could just drop by.

There's nothing especially wrong with this fantasy, per se, but the author has taken it up to 37,000 feet and set it thoughtlessly on automatic. In an earlier "Bad Girl" novel, she gave us Phoebe, afflicted with a bad back and a bad heart and a life-threatening case of pneumonia. Phoebe inherited a flower farm and advertised for roommates who became the de facto bad girls in question: Beryl Anne, who's done jail time for murdering her husband; Nance, who's broken up with her boyfriend and developed an eating disorder; and Ness, a six-foot African American woman who is HIV-positive. Together, in the first novel, they made that flower farm thrive.

But then what? It's an interesting question. If you live in Utopia, where's your plot going to come from? And what in the world happens to women, anyway? Phoebe -- in this new novel -- has fallen in love with a darling Hispanic UPS man, who dies on their wedding day. But she's already pregnant. Ness hangs out, not doing much. Beryl Anne falls in love with a mystery man. (Does anybody out there remember the "Mystery Man" of Brenda Starr, Girl Reporter -- the guy with the patch over his eye?) Nance is courted by Phoebe's brother, a nice rich man, but she stops eating because she isn't over "Rotten Rick," the failed journalist she once loved so much. So, everybody's making chocolate, having a good cry and working in the garden, but the story clearly needs more. Enter Mary Madigan/Magdalene, or Maddy, a hard-luck, part-Native American 29-year-old who lost her twin sister, Margaret, in the Oklahoma City bombing. By the luck of the fictional draw, Maddy ends up with Rotten Rick. This couple will eventually wind up at the flower farm; they'll stir things up some.

When I say everything is on automatic here, this is what I mean. Every character speaks not just in the exact same vernacular (with one irritating four-letter exception from Maddy), but they all operate off the same emotional grid. Everybody irrationally blames everybody else for everything that's ever happened. Thus, the pregnant Phoebe blames her mother and her unborn daughter for what's happened to the darling UPS man. Everybody blames Rotten Rick for Nance's eating disorder. Maddy's mother blames Maddy for Margaret's death in Oklahoma City instead of noticing that Timothy McVeigh actually did the crime. And all this irrational behavior is seen as "normal," i.e., why shouldn't everybody blame everybody else for stuff they didn't do?

I've said everyone here talks like a "bad girl," and that includes the men, so that one guy ends up saying to another, when they're alone: "You're not the loser here, you know. Isn't it enough that she loves you more than she loves him? . . . Why, you're pouting. That's almost cute, except it isn't." Now. Picture Donald Rumsfeld. Put that sentence into his mouth, or the mouth of any man you know. Just try!

Ms. Mapson, the plane is up in the air here. We know you're a wonderful pilot. Would you just get back into the cockpit and -- since there's another novel coming up in this series -- guarantee this fictional machine a safe and plausible landing?

Carolyn See is the author of five novels, including The Handyman and Golden Days. She is a book reviewer for The Washington Post and is on the board of PEN Center USA West. She has a Ph.D. in American literature from UCLA, where she is an adjunct professor of English. Her awards include the prestigious Robert Kirsch Body of Work Award (1993) and a Guggenheim Fellowship in fiction. She lives in California.

Please visit Carolyn See's website



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