The Magic of Found Objects
There’s a note of hippie magic to The Magic of Found Objects, and not the least bit of a wink to the 1987 film Moonstruck. Maddie Dawson tries to mill much quirkiness from her unusual heroine, but grounds her in a formula that makes for some disappointing plot twists and very dull, rote format choices. Dawson’s lively writing voice dragged this up to a high C, but I can’t really give it an unequivocal recommendation; overall, though, it’s not a bad way to spend an afternoon.
The amazingly-named Phronsie Linnelle has had an interesting life. Her free-spirited hippie artist mother, Janet DeFontaine – who goes by Tenaj, yes that is Janet spelled backwards, and yes really – met Phronsie’s farmboy father, Robert, at Woodstock. Phronsie (yes, she’s named after the character from The Five Little Peppers and How they Grew and yes, really) and her twin brother, Hendrix, were conceived there. Robert had a normal life and a girlfriend back home; he married Tenaj and settled down with her in his hometown, but they could not make it work. The marriage busts up, Robert marries that girlfriend, Maggie, and Tenaj and the kids move back to upstate New York to live in the most bohemian of ways. The custody split eventually goes disastrously awry when Tenaj never returns to pick up Phronsie and Hendrix from a visit when they’re ten.
The mix between her practical father and her magical mother intermarry in Phronsie – she believes she has a sense of the magical about her, just as her mother believes in a magical ‘other’ world. She has never experienced a normal upbringing or education, but she had worshipped and yet been embarrassed by Tenaj in her early years, taking her mother’s proud proclamations about spinsterhood to the heart.
Maggie and Robert tried to make an ordinary life for Phronsie and Hendrix, and ordinary is what Phronsie has settled for. That is, until her mother resurfaces as a majikal guru, in all of the magazines; she’s never bothered to reconnect with her children and has in fact had another child since moving on, something Phronsie only discovered when, as a teenager, she ran away to see her mother.
But at thirty-four, life changes for Phronsie. She aspires to be a writer, but works a 9 to 5 job at a publishing company in Manhattan. She lost Steve, her first husband and the man she thought was the love of her life, to infidelity, and thus love has become a Jigsaw-like trap. So when her best friend Judd offers her a way out of the maze that is modern dating by suggesting they get married, she says yes even though there’s never been a romantic or sexual spark there. At least he will be sweet and loyal and will give her a baby, she reasons to Talia, her other friend, and any relative who asks. So Phronsie and Judd announce their engagement – and directly after, Phronsie meets the seemingly perfect, handsome Adam. Will Phronsie take the plunge with Adam? Or will she marry Judd?
The degree to which you will be charmed by The Magic of Found Objects will depend on how deeply you subscribe to the belief that Tenaj espouses – the world is your playground, you should always hold out for true love, and it’s okay to be messy with the lives of other if it means personal growth for you.
Phronsie is your average chick lit heroine. She has an artistic dream but her job has mired her in hopeless, stultifying ordinariness, and she is so desperate to avoid loneliness, she’s willing to marry and have sex with a man she’s not really attracted to. She meets Mr. Right and then a facile triangle sets in – but in this case the resolution is obvious due to the lack of spark between Judd and Phronsie. They’re set up to be platonic partners by the narrative, but the author doesn’t do anything to make the notion of Phronsie marrying Judd seem like a palatable option. And Adam is too wholly perfect – patient, erudite, intelligent – to be anything but a construct. I liked Judd and Phronsie’s friendship, though, that much I will say.
Much more interesting is the family tangle between Tenaj, Maggie and Robert. Honestly, Tenaj ended up interesting me more than her daughter did, and her life story was richer, more complicated, and messier. I don’t buy the narrative’s base message – that it was fine for her to drop contact with the kids because she couldn’t offer them a stable life but did give them their magical ‘bones’. No love, no matter how great, is worth violating your value system for. And yet I loved Phronsie’s complicated relationship with her long-suffering stepmother, Maggie, which feels real and human and fraught and bittersweet.
My mixed feelings have resulted in a compromise grade. The Magic of Found Objects has a lot of interesting character ideas, but it really required a much less ordinary spark to set its fictional world aflame.