Consider this a public service announcement to the aspiring writers out there: when they say “Write what you know,” they really aren’t talking about the time you spent temping in an office full of incompetents. Join AmeriCorps, wait tables, take a cross-country bus trip…anything else to gain some wider experience on a shoestring budget. It’s not that I have anything against temping – I’ve certainly put in my time – but of the six worst contemporaries I’ve reviewed for AAR, three have starred temps. It’s a scenario laden with pitfalls for the novice writer, and Plum Girl definitely does not break the jinx.
Despite her two master’s degrees, Lonnie Kelley has spent the last six months temping at the law offices of Beauregard Twit and Lunther Bell. The office is full of unpleasant idiots, but it pays well. Dominick Carter, a college acquaintance Lonnie views with new eyes, works as a computer programmer in the same building. Lonnie lusts after Dominick, then berates herself for betraying her boyfriend Terry, who she doesn’t actually like. Strange things are afoot at Twit & Bell, and at an office party Lunther dies of a heart attack. When it’s discovered that the attack was artificially induced, the police detective in charge of the case asks Lonnie to assist his investigation.
This is a tough book to review because it’s so far outside the usual standards of professional fiction. The clunky writing is about the level of a middling amateur fanfic. The main problems hearken back to other bad contemporaries: from the wholesale violation of “Show, Don’t Tell” to the demonized minor characters, I feel I’ve seen it all before. The asinine mystery plot may be a new low, though. To give you some idea, an early plot point hinges on an urgent fax that Twit pesters Lonnie about nonstop for several weeks – because, of course, the only way to receive a confidential document is to have your assistant watch for it at the shared fax machine of your busy office, and naturally there is no recourse if the document never arrives. Oh, if only there were some more reliable and private means of communication! It’s really a shame that no one’s developed the technology.
The characters run the gamut from inane to despicable. Most engaging is Lonnie’s freespirited sister Peach; their occasionally snappy dialogues provides most of the book’s rare bright spots. Dominick the hero has no discernible personality beyond his inexplicable lust for Lonnie, who is simply pathetic. At first I was willing to give Lonnie a shot despite the clumsy prose. I even perked up when she finally brought up her master’s in feminist theory, hoping that she might have something insightful or entertaining to say. Then Lonnie-the-feminist kissed Dominick, and chastised herself for acting like an “overheated hussy.”
At that point, I was officially done with Lonnie.
When Lonnie’s boyfriend Terry treats her badly, she resolves that their relationship is over, and Terry vanishes from view. I assumed that she had dumped him and we simply weren’t shown the conflict directly, a frequent problem in this book. Instead, it turns out that Lonnie sent Terry off without a word of complaint, and assumed that he would intuit that their relationship of six months was over when she stopped returning his calls. When he doesn’t, she denies that she’s avoiding him, but privately fumes that he won’t just disappear.
At that point, I was forced to emerge from retirement, because you can’t be officially done with someone you despise that much.
In the end, though, I found Lonnie more pathetic than anything else. Although I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the author’s intent, Lonnie ultimately comes across as a girl scarred by decades of emotional abuse – which she evidently is. Lonnie thinks lovingly of her “near-perfect mother,” but in fact we never see the woman do much of anything except crush her daughter’s self-esteem, and the effects are clear. Lonnie searches every trivial kindness for the insult she’s sure is implied, and usually finds one. At the office she’s obsessively loyal to the one supervisor who’s halfway decent to her, and never reflects on her rather bizarre neediness. The skewed perspective affects other characters, too: when Lonnie can’t say no to Terry, Dominick doesn’t take it as a sign that Lonnie’s desperate need for approval has rendered her spineless. He thinks it shows how sweet and generous she is.
The office-temp conceit doesn’t help matters. From the way it’s portrayed, one might gather that the sole object of a law office is to capriciously dump as much pointless busywork on the clerical temps as possible; there’s no evidence that anyone in the office is capable of litigation. Lonnie completely ignores the number-one perk of being a temp: when the going gets tough, the temp gets going. Lonnie often reflects on how she’s wasting her education, but is utterly passive about trying to improve her situation. (Should any academics make it to the end, the entirely undeserved happy ending is a real knee-slapper.)
By far the most compelling mystery in Plum Girl is why its obviously AWOL editor wasn’t cited for dereliction of duty. Without a total revamp of the mystery plot this book could never be made good, but a rewrite to clear up the more blatant stylistic problems would have made it better. The romance-reading community deserves better from Onyx, as does the author herself. In today’s ultra-competitive publishing climate, it’s shocking to see a new author get hung out to dry like this – if a major publishing house picks up a book, surely they owe its author some professional guidance. Plum Girl reads like an unpolished first draft, and publishing it in this state shows a real disrespect for the romance community. Let’s hope this is a chance aberration, and not a trend.