Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Book Review: The Big Bang

By Jami Deise

It’s one of the symbols of the American Dream: The big house in the suburbs. The yard is perfect; the neighbors are friendly (and they look just us!); the public schools are highly rated, and all the children are above average. But in fiction – be it movies (The Stepford Wives), TV (Desperate Housewives), music (Volvo Driving Soccer Mom) and books – the serenity of the suburbs is a mirage, hiding a forced conformity, hypocrisy and downright evil.

Linda Joffe Hull’s novel The Big Bang is the latest contribution to this sub-genre, focusing on the planned community of Melody Mountain Ranch in Colorado. Every chapter begins with a relevant code from the covenants of the community’s home owner’s association (HOA), which runs day-to-day life in the town with an almost voyeuristic interest. Homeowners get notices and fines, for instance, if they plant the wrong type of grass on their lawns.

The novel centers around beautiful interior designer Hope Jordan, desperate to get pregnant by a husband who’s more preoccupied with his job than making Hope’s motherhood dreams come true; Frank Griffin, the HOA president and a minister who has used his position in the HOA for a land grab centered around the new playground; Will Pierce-Cohn, a stay-at-home dad and HOA board member who opposes Frank’s plan for the new playground; and Tim Trautman, the community’s newest member whose wife is expanding their family of four to a family of six. The cast also includes Frank’s wife Maryellen, a henpecked woman with an eating disorder, and his teenage daughter Eva, a would-be witch. Real estate agent/sex toy seller/secret lesbian Laney Estridge also plays an important role. The three men, while all married fathers, all lust after Hope, and after they all unwittingly eat hash brownies at a neighborhood party, Hope becomes pregnant after spending time with each man. If only she could remember what happened that night, she might have an idea who fathered her baby.

Frank’s playground, and Will’s opposition, also play an important role in the novel. Frank and Will both covet Hope’s backing, and while she signs Will’s petition, she also takes a role in helping Frank plan it. The playground becomes a metaphor for the hypocrisy and underlying rot of the neighborhood, and when it develops a sinkhole, the message is clear.

Hull writes the novel in the point-of-view of each main character, while remaining in third person. Her ability to differentiate among voices is impressive – Eva’s teenage rebellion contrasts strongly with her mother’s passivity – but some of the character worlds she creates are uncomfortable. Frank, Will and Tim all plot to screw Hope, and reading their thoughts is distasteful. Tim is a master manipulator, Frank a hypocrite, and Will is so angry when Hope works on the playground that he refers to her in his thoughts as “Bitch.”

The novel speeds along on a collision course not only with Hope and the men, but also with the playground and the homes in the neighborhood. The ending is an appropriate conclusion to all the story lines that Hull set in motion.

While reading The Big Bang, I was grateful that the HOA on which I served for ten years was more preoccupied with the one or two homeowners who refused to adhere to the community’s architectural requirements than with all the rules and regulations that the Melody Mountain Ranch board members have to deal with. With its structure and plot lines, though, I was expecting a funnier book. The novel should be a satire, but the characters are too sad, bitter or manipulative to be funny. This may make them a lot more similar to our actual neighbors than readers may feel comfortable with. It is hard to laugh at the picture the author draws when the picture may in fact be a mirror.

Thanks to Tyrus Books for the book in exchange for an honest review.

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