A Most Uncommon Degree of Popularity
I haven’t made a secret of the fact that Kathleen Gilles Seidel is one of my favorite authors. She may be my favorite author, period. You have to wait a while between books, but hers are always worth it. When I heard that she was coming out with a new book, I was, of course, excited. When I heard it wasn’t a romance, I wasn’t worried. Several of her romances read rather like women’s fiction. A Most Uncommon Degree of Popularity is just a little further down that women’s fiction path.
Lydia Meadows, a lawyer, lives in Washington D.C. with her workaholic lawyer husband, her two children, and surrounded by a neighborhood group of mom friends who are also mostly lawyers. Despite all predictions and some ideological reservations, her life has become more or less completely traditional. She no longer works – outside the home. Instead her days are mostly filled with managing her household as well as her children’s education and extracurricular activities. She has a slight tendency toward obsessing about things. Currently it is manifesting itself in her concern for her sixth-grade daughter Erin’s social life. Suddenly Erin is – gasp – one of the popular girls. And then, just as suddenly, she isn’t anymore.
Lydia’s three best friends are also the mothers of Erin’s three best friends, and, in the course of sixth-grade social politics, there is a shuffle in the ranks that comes in the form of a new girl, Faith. This shuffle has consequences for the adult friendships and leaves the usually popular Lydia feeling like an outsider too – an outsider who has no idea how to help her daughter through this difficult time in her life. Not that she isn’t going to try her darndest.
A Most Uncommon Degree of Popularity is told in the first-person point of view, which is a new narrative voice for Seidel, but for this type of story, it is entirely appropriate. Lydia is a wry, self-deprecating, fair-minded narrator; it’s easy to see why she is so popular amongst the other moms at her children’s private school.
A good portion of this book deals with the concept of popularity and how women view it either as a social force or character trait. Many, many books, movies, and TV shows deal with the concept of the outsider and how it feels to be unpopular. In these books, movies, and TV shows the popular girls are, as Seidel puts it, “manipulative little blond bitch-goddesses.” But is popularity bad and does possessing it necessarily make a person into a force for evil? While it may seem clear cut when you’re a teen, it might not seem so when you’re a teen’s parent. Seidel, through Lydia, examines the complications of girls’ and women’s relationships thoughtfully and without vilifying any of her characters.
Trying to explain to a new reader why Seidel is such a wonderful writer is a complex thing. You can’t point to the intricacy of her plotting or the action or suspense of the story itself. Her books aren’t plot driven at all; they’re driven entirely by character. And while her dialogue is good, it isn’t cutting or full of zinging comments that are easily quotable. Instead you wind up using unexciting terms like “believable” or “multi-dimensional.” Seidel’s prose rather than being “lush” or “lyrical” is cartographic: when she paints a picture of a street you feel like you could easily navigate it. The little details are there – where the best parking is, where to swerve to avoid the potholes, what time of day the traffic snarls. When she describes characters, you feel like you understand what makes them tick, like you could predict how they would behave under stress. These are perhaps prosaic details, but they are also the sorts of things that make the difference between an interesting character and a fully realized one. Combine this sort of writing with the first person device, and you have a story that is confiding, conversational…almost gossipy in the most delicious, guilt-free sense of the word. Women like to tell stories and they like to hear stories, and they like those stories to have lots of details because it isn’t so much what happened that’s important to them, but why it happened. Seidel’s characters feel real and they act realistically. She takes great pains to explain their histories and motivations.
However, while A Most Uncommon Degree of Popularity was consistently interesting and readable, it did suffer from its lack of central conflict. A number of small conflicts pop up for Lydia during the course of the story, most of them having to do with her close emotional involvement in her daughter’s life. Each of these smaller conflicts resolves itself by the book’s end, but the root problem, Lydia’s involvement, doesn’t change. Consequently the book finishes on an open-ended note, and I was left wondering what had or would happen to several of the characters. Again, perhaps it is only because they felt so real to me that I wanted to know how Lydia’s husband’s trial finished up or how Faith would conduct herself in the future.
Though it is not a romance Seidel’s newest novel is all about relationships, and those relationships are every bit as multifaceted and interesting as those between men and women. Lydia is a forthcoming, appealing narrator, the kind of woman most women would like for a friend. If you have read Seidel before, you probably don’t need my recommendation to pick this one up. If you haven’t and any of the aforementioned qualities – wonderful writing, brilliant characterization, interesting conflicts – sound good in a book, do yourself a favor and pick this one up today. It’s worth the hardcover price.