For the first half of the book, I thought No Kidding was an unexceptional story with no great flaws and no great spark. That was before I discovered the depths of my passionate hatred of the heroine, who began showing her true colors from the mid-point onward. No Kidding stars an unformed, immature heroine who never grows up in the course of her story.
Audrey Mills is a 35-year-old customer service temp at a computer company. All of her friends and co-workers are having babies, and Audrey resents the demands that babies make on their time, and the way they turn peoples’ minds to mush. In fact, we can see how terrible and insidious babies are, because for the first 50 pages or so, simply everyone that Audrey encounters is a member of the Happy-Happy Baby Conspiracy! What are the odds, huh? I wouldn’t have minded the author stacking the deck so much if it had been done with either more subtlety or more humor; as it is, the point is sledgehammered home.
Audrey has been with big, boring Doug for seven years. He wants babies and suburbia, and she wants no kids and the city. And she’s joyfully flirting with the new guy in the next cubicle. So what’s a gal to do? Why, accept Doug’s proposal of marriage, of course! Sure, the sex is boring, Doug takes her for granted, flirting with Aldo in the next cubicle is so much more exciting, and Audrey doesn’t seem to remember ever being happy with Doug in any way – but he proposes, so she agrees. Oh, and Mom wants grandchildren, and Audrey hates to disappoint her. Maybe I could believe in a character 10 or more years younger behaving this way, but I’m not very interested in a thirtysomething who hasn’t gained more life experience or backbone than this.
Then the flirtation with Aldo really takes off, and Audrey starts making every possible relationship mistake. She believes that her flirtation with Aldo doesn’t mean anything with regards to Doug. She breaks up with Doug and moves in with Aldo that night. She assumes that a few great times in the sack with Aldo prove that theirs is love that will last forever. Then she racks up many more mistakes. Audrey has such a textbook case of relationship stupidity that I was utterly astonished when it all pays off. Audrey deludes herself that everything is hunky-dory, and we soon learn that she’s correct. Her train wreck of a relationship is right on track, and everything is going to be okay! Right? It is in this book.
I found 35-year-old Audrey to be ridiculously immature, and such growth she does eventually demonstrate occurs in the last 8 pages. I don’t think every character needs to grow and learn a Valuable Lesson by the end of their story, but since that did seem to be the direction Audrey was headed in, without a resolution the book seems pointless.
As a prose stylist, the author shows a lot of potential, with very clear, readable writing and some inventive and amusing passages, such as a practical joke at a computer convention. But there’s also a distinctive “new author smell” – the sort of things that clear up with greater experience. The most telling of these is the author’s tendency to skirt around difficult emotional territory. Tension between Audrey and Doug builds for chapters, but their climactic fight is all off-stage. Great writing, like great acting, involves risk on the part of the artist; part of the job description is to dig up painful emotions and bare them for all the world to see. Skipping over the tough stuff is understandable, but it isn’t good storytelling.
Even when very well-done, it’s aggravating to be in on the early stages of a character’s odyssey of self-discovery, because such characters are so irritating until they grow up a little. Sarah Bird and Marian Keyes are both masters of this kind of character. The payoff is worth it, but getting there demands some patience. Audrey would be a lesser, but viable, example of the species if she’d discovered anything interesting in her quest. But since she learned all the wrong lessons, there’s little to recommend about No Kidding.