Friday, February 22, 2013

Book Review: The Girl, the Gold Tooth and Everything

By Jami Deise

There’s something about life in the suburbs – the cookie-cutter lawns, the playground politics, the ultra-competitive parenting – that can lead a woman who has left behind a career and a commute and an identity to forget who she was before homework, soccer practice and gossipy neighbors took over her life.

For Mina Clark, heroine of Francine LaSala’s The Girl, The Gold Tooth, and Everything, it goes deeper than that. It’s not that Mina can’t remember what life was like when she wore a suit and heels to the office five days week, it’s that Mina really can’t remember – she has amnesia, and even her husband, Jack, and three-year-old daughter, Emma, are mysteries to her.

What caused Mina’s amnesia? Everyone seems to know but her. Unfortunately, her therapist has advised Mina and everyone in her life that Mina will need to remember on her own, otherwise the trauma could overwhelm her. So that leaves Mina forced to navigate her upscale neighborhood, Easton Estates, without the usual touch points most people take for granted – including knowing who’s friend or who’s foe. To make matters worse, Mina’s amnesia has left her jobless and at the mercy of creditors who hound her day and night.

And the cause of Mina’s amnesia isn’t the only question in her mind. Why is her husband Jack rarely around, and what is the true nature of his job? Why is their basement door always locked and her car always in the shop? Mina’s neighbor, 80-year-old Esther, seems happy to provide babysitting and advice. But when Mina makes an effort to expand her life and reaches out to the neighborhood wild-child mom, Harriet, Esther’s disapproval radiates.

Then one day Mina notices an older Russian man watching her and Emma in the neighborhood park. And an amazing thing happens when he approaches Mina and talks to her in Russian – Mina answers, speaking Russian herself! It seems Mina’s secrets may go further than she ever imagined.

The Girl, The Gold Tooth and Everything is a roller coaster of a book. Author LaSala takes the reader up the long, high hill by describing her suburban setting and its usual cast of characters with detail and precision. Then she lets the car go flying into the madness of mysterious Russians, bizarre dental spas and characters who may or may not be real. LaSala is a strong, confident writer, and even with all the hills, drops and curves, she never loses track of who Mina is and what she’s searching to discover. As the mysteries grow deeper and the momentum builds, the book becomes impossible to put down, building up to a nail-biting climax that brings together past and present in a life-threatening confrontation.

LaSala’s writing reminded me a lot of Susan Isaacs, whose Compromising Positions is the grandmother of the sex and murder in suburbia category. The best mysteries, however, are a jigsaw puzzle in which each clue plays a vital role, leading to a unifying whole, and I believe this is where LaSala falls short. As much as I enjoyed the book, I was disappointed that some tantalizing set-ups led to rather ho-hum payoffs. And while the ultimate villain was a genius solution that worked very well in LaSala’s overpriced suburban-neighborhood milieu and today’s economic realities, it wasn’t woven in with Mina’s overall dilemma. It’s never a good sign when a writer can remove half her plot points and still end up with the same beginning and ending. A well-crafted mystery is like a poorly constructed Jenga tower – removing any block should cause the entire structure to crumble. Further, Mina’s nemesis had two separate and distinct motivations – a big mystery no-no.

Since mystery is arguably the most difficult genre in which to write, these flaws are understandable and easily overlooked in the context of the enjoyable ride that LaSala provides. The Girl, The Gold Tooth and Everything is a wonderful escape from the science projects that are due tomorrow, the carpools that have fallen apart in the last minute, and the mysteriously disappearing soccer cleats. The details of suburban parenthood may be mundane, but as LaSala points out, we are lucky to remember them.

Thanks to Francine LaSala  for the book in exchange for an honest review.

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