Mixing It up: Cree LeFavour’s “Private Means” & Caren Lissner’s “Carrie Pilby”

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a married couple in possession of a free weekend must seek entertainment outside of the house. Sometimes this involves looking at paint samples at the hardware store (“Which green is the right green?”),” other times it means taking a long bike ride in the country on a very windy day.

But what do you do when you both want a reading weekend? Well, you loaf on the couch and get lost in a book! Anyway, the book I’m lost in right now is Private Means, a lively first novel by Cree LeFavour. I was drawn to this book by the surreal cover. Covers do matter. But it is also worth reading. LeFavour has an eye for meticulous detail, and the buoyant writing jumps off the page. Some of the bounce springs from her fondness for beginning sentences with a participle (a verbal adjective, ending in -ing, such as “running” or “singing”).

For example, the amusing opening sentence is: “Spotting the phone charger, she unplugged it from the wall by the nightstand and threw it onto the bed where the hard, white cube cluttered against the fiberglass rim of the tennis racket.” The details are fun, no? The second sentence also begins with a participial phrase: “Tossing orange swim trunks she found hanging inside the closet in the same direction…”

Private Means is kind of a dog book, though completely different from the dog novel, Separation Anxiety, which I happened to read a few weeks ago. In that novel, the narrator wore her dog in a baby sling. In this novel, Alice is so upset by the loss of her adorable dog Maybelle that she does not accompany her husband Peter, a psychiatist, to the Berkshires over Memorial Day Weekend.

Lefavour writes from the viewpoints of Alice and Peter in alternate chapters. We learn taht Peter is unhappy, too. Since their twin daughters went to college, they have slept in separate bedrooms. Alice is delighted, he less so. And he is a uneasy about Alice’s relationship with the dog: in other words, he’s jealous, though he intellectualizes it as Maybelle’s having taken his place. Actually, what he doesn’t understand is that Maybelle is like her child. Alice is dealing with empty nest syndrome.

The couple lives in New York, and though they are comfortably off, Peter sometimes wishes he had gone into a big money field. Typical midlife crisis, no? Alice, a biophysicist who studies starling murmurations, has been out of the workplace so long she doesn’t quite know what to do about it. More midlife crisis! She is bored by Peter, and she misses her daughter. She is also wryly critical of her Facebook lost dog support group, who meet in person to discuss dog-finding strategies at the apartment of an obscenely wealthy woman. What is Alice doing here, she wonders? Will Julie’s stack of flyers listing animal search resources actually help? She doubts it.

And one funny, perfect sentence follows another.

The chatter of the women’s stories featuring themselves and their exceptional dogs was muted by the baby talk that crept in from the edges. The dogs’ names were invariably babyish, even without the high-pitched and singsong lilt that seeped into the women’s voices. Never mind the dogs weren’t there to perk up their ears. Alice was as guilty as any of them.

AND NOW FOR A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT BOOK.

I am a third of the way through Caren Lissner’s charming novel, Carrie Pilby, which I picked up after seeing the movie of the same title on Netflix (Nathan Lane plays her psychiatrist, and Gabrile Byrne her father). Carrie is a true eccentric, an English genius whose rich father shipped her off to Harvard at age 15 because apparently she was too smart to do anything like it in England. Naturally, she was too young emotionally for Harvard, and it didn’t help that her English professor seduced her and then tried to force her to cross boundaries by saying things that made her VERY uncomfortable. They broke up.

At loose ends in New York, this youthful Harvard graduate spends most of her time reading and watching old movies. She does not leave her apartment much. She is a female Holden Caulfield, mistrustful of human beings. And then her psychiatrist asks her to check off items on a list of things that used to make her happy (drinking cherry soda is one) to see if they still make her happy, and adds items that might bring her into contact with other people.

Carrie does better than you would think (so far). I love her adventures as a legal proofreader. But can she survive much contact with people? I haven’t finished the book! The movie has a good but ambiguous ending, and I’m interested to see how the book ends.

Happy Reading, y’all! If you’ve read any good books, tell me about ’em.