Desert Isle Keeper
Out of the Blue
I immediately recognized that Isabel Wolff was an author with a fine sense of the absurd upon reading the proviso at the front Out of the Blue, which advises that “No dogs were harmed in the writing of this book.” And despite the fact that this story about the unraveling marriage of Faith Smith, morning weather person for AM-UK!, has many moments of sad regret and angry realization to offset the underlying tone of self-deprecating humor, I never despaired that Faith would fail to rise to the challenges before her.
Told from Faith’s point of view, the story begins on January 6th, Epiphany for those who keep track of religious holidays, and characteristic of Wolff’s effective use of symbolism to give her story greater depth and meaning. On this day, Faith has a surprise planned for her husband, Peter. To celebrate their 15th anniversary, she has gathered some family and friends for dinner out, never anticipating that the event will instead precipitate the slow but steady destruction of a marriage she had come to view as unshakeable. A seemingly offhand comment from her longtime friend, Lily Jago, stays in Faith’s mind for days after, finally prompting her to pin Lily down on what she meant by this remark. It’s Lily who introduces the idea that Peter shows classic signs of a husband who is straying: the slimming down, the refurbished wardrobe, and so on. Faith is forced to wonder whether Peter’s recent emotional distance, not to mention his move to the guest room because of sleeping problems, is actually due to stress in his job as a publishing director under a new, unsupportive manager or might, in fact, be telltale signs of his involvement with another woman.
I fell in love with Faith immediately. This is a lady who has obviously spent her life being the “good girl,” and her determination to think the best of people and see life in the most positive light possible is endearing, as are some subtle hints of nonconformity and rebelliousness. When she muses that Lily, the first black woman to be named editor to a high-fashion magazine, is entitled to her flamboyant lifestyle and deserves to feel desirable and loved, you know that she regrets that these things are missing from her own life. And the reader sees clearly what Faith seems oblivious to: she has become nondescript to the point of invisibility, never mistreated but frequently overlooked and taken for granted.
But Faith is no victim, and though she sometimes gets pulled along by events she sets into motion, she never totally relinquishes control of her destiny. As the marriage deteriorates, Lily takes Faith under her wing, and a whole new chapter opens in her life. But there is nothing simple about this story; it flows as real life flows, with relationships in overlapping stages of evolution that reflect the transitional nature of the “off with the old, on with the new” process. What makes Faith’s story even more real is that Peter is no übervillain; while initially he seems a bit unsympathetic, Wolff makes you see his basic decency as well as Faith’s inadvertent role in fueling what might have remained his quiet and temporary discontent.
Wolff’s prose is sure to please those who love the use of words to suggest nuances in meaning, to make a merry sound, and to tease the tongue. Lily, in particular, has a delightful way of playing on words, referring to herself, for example, as “footloose and fiancé free.” Peter and Faith have a habit of talking in book titles, using the names of books they’ve read and discussed as a verbal shorthand common to married couples. Particularly fun are the Freudian slips, like Faith’s extremely telling, “We’re about to enter a prolonged period of low pleasure” when reporting on a low pressure system to her television audience.
The cast of secondary characters provide great entertainment without taking on the annoying quirkiness that renders many such characters unbelievable. Faith’s pre-teen son, Matt, is something of a math and computer whiz, who has lengthy, somewhat mysterious phone chats with Faith’s globetrotting mother. And who could resist the 14-year-old Katie, with her impressive intellect and fascination for all theories psychoanalytic, especially when she explains that Barbie dolls previously interested her only as a “paradigm for US cultural imperialism?” At work, Faith graciously tries to ignore the sniping between aging male news anchor Terry and rising star Sophie, who is intellectually superior but ill-equipped to handle the frequent attempts to sabotage her credibility. There’s Josiah Cartwright, the innovative artist who looks like a Greek god and sweeps Faith into a romantic fantasy of any woman’s dreams. Even Graham, the sheepdog Faith and Peter had taken in, is his own character: sensitive, loving, and petulant if they don’t leave one of his favorite cooking shows playing on the TV when they have to go out in the evening. And, of course, the divine Lily, at the forefront of the glitterati elite who create trends rather than following them.
And underneath the entertaining story is a common quandary with which many of us can relate: is my life, with its calm predictability, enough? Have I missed something by not taking more risks? Is this existence reflective of a conscious choice to take pleasure in simple things, to live in quiet comfort among all that has become familiar, or have I simply settled into a boring rut out of a lack of ambitious, forward motion? It is in the process of really exploring these questions that we sort out the differences between our youthful idealism and what, through life experience, we have come to hold in value. For Faith, it is a matter of finally identifying those core qualities that she requires in the people who are close to her, and in recognizing that things are not always what they seem. Just as those who love you might cause you the greatest pain, whether through a simple misunderstanding, petty jealousies or because their idea of what is best for you does not necessarily align with your own, it’s just as possible that those who seem most intent on securing your happiness pose the greatest threat to it.
I found this story totally engaging. The spiteful but hilarious background babble of the other TV crew members in Faith’s earphone as they are interspersed with her recitation of the weather is entertaining, and Lily’s radar for what is faddish – whether it’s wheatgrass juice or a colonic irrigation – is an endless source of delight. Katie’s psychoanalytical analyses are always good for a laugh, though surprisingly dead-on, and Wolff’s use of those little Freudian slips are humorously telling. I especially loved that while Faith changed subtly but surely through the course of Out of the Blue, she never lost that fundamental kindness that prodded her to smile especially brightly whenever reporting that the weather was going to be bad. And, while I was being entertained, I was taken on an interesting journey with Faith and, to a lesser degree, Peter, which explored how the complexity of our relationships can, in many ways, be surprisingly simple. Fitting with the overall upbeat tone of the story, the ending is one that resolves all in a believable and completely satisfying way, reminding us that with every tumultuous rainstorm comes a beautiful rainbow.
Having discovered the impressive talent of Isabel Wolff, I can forecast a glom of her earlier works, The Trials of Tiffany Trott and The Making of Minty Malone, in my immediate future.