Friday, November 13, 2015

Book Review: The Art of Crash Landing

By Jami Deise

We all know someone who just can’t seem to get his life together. It could be a friend, family member, or the woman in the parking lot always asking for bus fare because her wallet just got stolen. Some of us recognize ourselves in their suffering and say, “There, but for the grace of G-d, go I.” Others are sure that this walking disaster’s own behavior is to blame for their circumstances. And then there are those who wonder what could have happened to this person to make responsible adulthood so out of reach.

Author Melissa DeCarlo is probably in that last group. In her debut novel The Art of Crash Landing, her heroine, Matilda “Mattie” Wallace, is thirty years old, pregnant with an unwanted child, and fleeing a deadbeat boyfriend with only a few dollars to her name, six garbage bags of belongings and her dead mother’s 1978 Chevy Malibu. She is a far cry from the women’s fiction heroines whose biggest problems are cheating rich husbands and spoiled teenage children. And DeCarlo, in her first-person narration, takes care to ensure that Mattie is aware of her shortcomings. She’s not going to be around to help her stepfather deal with his cancer diagnosis. She’ll take things that don’t belong to her because she’s broke. She’ll lie to try to get herself out of a jam.

How does someone end up failing at adulthood? As far as Mattie is concerned, it’s all her mother’s fault. Genie died two years ago, and her life was just as chaotic as Mattie’s. She dragged Mattie around from boyfriend to boyfriend, job to job, alcoholic bender to alcoholic bender. Her brief marriage to Queeg represented the only few years of calm in their lives, and Genie messed it up by falling off the wagon again. Mattie’s strongest memory is nearly drowning at the age of seven while her mother flirted with some guy on the beach, oblivious to her daughter’s struggles.

We meet Mattie as she’s fleeing from her latest loser boyfriend, Nick. When she stops at Queeg’s, he tells her a lawyer from Gandy, Oklahoma has been trying to get in touch with her. Her grandmother has died, and Mattie is her only heir. Mattie is shocked. She thought her mother’s mother had died a long time ago.

Mattie drives to Oklahoma, the Malibu on its last legs, hoping the inheritance can take care of her money woes. Instead, she finds out that while Tilda indirectly left her the house (the will actually named Genie, but with Genie dead it goes to Mattie), there are so many claims on the estate it will need to be sold to pay them off. And probate will take months. Mattie manages to convince the paralegal, Luke, to let her stay at the house while things get settled. Mattie is shocked to find her mother’s old room a shrine to Genie’s teenage life. Everything is just how she left it. She’s even more shocked to learn her mother, rather than being the teenage train wreck that Mattie was, was a good student and an accomplished pianist who had a music scholarship to college. But she abandoned it, and Gandy, one day and just took off for good.

What happened to Genie to make her ditch her life so abruptly and completely? There are enough people in Gandy who remember her mother that Mattie decides to stick around and find out. Maybe the answer will explain why her own life turned out so poorly.

The Art of Crash Landing is an absorbing read, a women’s fiction mystery whose readers will evaluate clues along with its protagonist. A broader question, though, beyond the details of Genie’s back story, is whether or not a singular event can be enough to propel a person off the trajectory of a successful adult life into alcoholism and poverty. And in Mattie’s case, whether the discovery of that event can be enough to put someone back on the path to responsibility.

Although I figured out what Genie’s secret was, it did not lessen my enjoyment of the book at all. (That feeling of pride in figuring out the mystery is just as fulfilling as the surprise at having been fooled.) And while Mattie is someone that I’d be wary of in real life, I was happy to share her fictional journey. Still, the biggest test a novel must pass is whether the protagonist is the most interesting character on the canvas. With deep dark secrets in both Tilda’s and Genie’s pasts, I’m not sure The Art of Crash Landing meets this particular criterion.

Thanks to David Ratner PR for the book in exchange for an honest review.