Balancing in High Heels
Alissa Lindley, nee Jacobs, is a lawyer in the Public Defender’s office in Los Angeles. Her marriage to the handsome Thomas is in “a rough patch” and she’s having difficulty getting an urgent six-page fax to go through to a judge. The fax machine dies, Thomas calls to demand an immediate divorce because his girl-friend is pregnant, and Alissa loses it. She smashes the fax machine, winds up in anger management classes, and loses her job. When things start to go downhill from there, she packs it all in and heads back to San Jose and the loving bosom of family and friends to start over again.
Family is her recently widowed mother Rachel, her older married sister Marsha, Marsha’s husband and two teen-aged sons. Friends is Kath, her best friend since grade school. Kath is the perfect stay at home mom with the perfect kids and the perfect husband and the perfect car and the perfect house and the perfectly unexplained sense of failure. To this circle Alissa adds a growing list of zany criminal clients accused of a variety of crimes, and a couple of boy-friends.
There are plenty of references throughout the book to pop culture – music artists, television shows, movies – that went right over my head and probably would have meant a lot to, say, my daughter. I’m not fashion savvy enough to recognize hardly any of the designers whose clothes Alissa wears. None of that made any difference.
I had intended to start this review with a disclaimer that I had never read Chick Lit before Balancing in High Heels. But by the time I finished it, I knew I’d read this sort of thing before. It took just one quick glance at my (bulging) bookshelves to remind me. Alissa’s story – her frustrations, her anger, her insecurities, her strengths, her fears, her dreams – were as familiar to me as Trudy’s “string beans and baby-sh*t” from Marilyn French’s 1989 feminist novel, The Women’s Room. And if Kath isn’t suffering from Betty Friedan’s 1963 “problem with no name,” I don’t know anyone who is.
Is Rendahl’s novel supposed to be feminist? I have no idea, because I don’t know what Chick Lit is “supposed” to be. What I do know is that I loved every single woman in this story – every married one, every divorced one, and every widowed one. They were funny and profound, endearing and absurd, outrageous and comforting, and very, very real.
Alissa’s story is, in spite of the tragedies that set it in motion, hysterically funny, and that much I do think is intentional. There were pages and pages where I laughed so hard I couldn’t breathe – tears ran down my cheeks reading about Aunt Rosa and the chicken kebab. And then there’s Mort, the “small gnome in mauve Sansabelt pants and a light blue polo shirt that anwered my mother’s door” when Alissa is invited to a family dinner.
“Who’s Mort?” I whispered to Marsha after I kissed my nephews.
“I think he’s our new daddy,” she whispered back.
“But I don’t want a new daddy,” I whispered in alarm. “I especially don’t want Mort to be my daddy.”
“I don’t think we get to choose”
“Fine, but he’s not taking me to the father-daughter dance.” I thought for a second. “Do you think we should buy her some condoms?”
I never laughed reading The Women’s Room. And I always wanted it to end on a hopeful note rather than its gloomy, depressing finish. Balancing in High Heels ends on a note of hope. Maybe not quite a genre Romance ending, but at least a promise of a strong maybe probably.
This is also a novel with poignant moments. The author doesn’t spend a lot of time examining the death of Alissa’s father, although it seemed to occur within the story’s timeframe. I thought this might have been explored more, but when Alissa confronts her mother about her life as a widow, Rendahl hits home with a solid emotional wallop, mixed in with a bit of wry humor.
If Chick Lit is about the emotional rollercoaster that today’s young professional women experience as they try to juggle career and family and happiness and grief and frustration and anger and love and loneliness, I have to wonder why it’s considered “new.” It’s more like a new camera looking at the same scenery. The focus might be sharper or the trees a little bigger in the landscape than a few years ago, but the fundamentals haven’t changed, and perhaps that’s why I had no problem thoroughly enjoying characters the same ages as my kids. I recognized Alissa’s exasperation with her mother and with her sister and with her friends and with her job and with her love life. Been there, done that. I recognized her reactions, too, and sometimes I agreed with them. Okay, mostly I agreed with them. Oh, all right, I almost always agreed with them!
Alissa knows her happiness isn’t dependent on finding the love of her life, but she still wants to find him. She also knows that even if she does find him, she might not be happy if the rest of her life doesn’t come together. Best of all, she knows it’s all a crap shoot and she’s going to keep playing the game and hoping to win. In the meantime, however, she’s got to get through each day, earn a living, and, maybe, without even trying, save the world.
The book’s one weakness was the “save the world,” Pollyanna-ish subplot that begins in the middle of the book and nearly dominates its ending. Had the author as neatly wrapped up Alissa’s anger issues and her Prozac dependency, I’d have granted my very first book to review for AAR DIK status.
Balancing in High Heels is a fun read, with a tightly constructed and interesting plot, a cast of delightfully zany but utterly believable characters, all well-written in a clean, breezy style that had me turning the pages until I’d read the whole thing in a little over four hours. I’d happily recommend it to anyone, and may send my copy to my daughter (with hopes that she doesn’t see too much of me in Alissa’s mother!).