cover image WIDE BLUE YONDER


Jean Thompson, Author . Simon & Schuster $24 (368p) ISBN 978-0

Domestic tensions deflate into screwball hijinks in this pleasant, if somewhat toothless, debut novel by the author of Who Do You Love: Stories, a 1999 National Book Award finalist for fiction. Set over one summer in Springfield, Ill., the novel follows four characters floundering amid life's disappointments. Elaine is a wry, open-hearted divorcée ("so far she had a business that worked, a marriage that didn't, and a daughter who the jury was still out on"). Her daughter, Josie, hates Springfield, hates her parents' divorce, hates her whole life. She wants to skip town, but settles for falling in love with a policeman and scheming to get herself arrested. Elaine and Josie find themselves caring for her ex-husband's doddering great uncle Harvey, a half-blind, compulsive watcher of the Weather Channel. Harvey just wants to be left alone, and he especially wants to avoid the cataract surgery that Elaine insists on. Meanwhile, in California, a violent young man named Rolando steals a car and heads east. A lifetime of abuse from his peers has plunged him into delusional rage. Like the weather systems that Harvey obsessively tracks, he rolls toward Springfield. Thompson's characters are mostly likable, especially the mordant Elaine, determined to muddle through flawed relationships and shoulder her responsibilities, however remote happiness may seem. Unfortunately, the novel loses its edge by the time it reaches its sensational climax. The fury and mute pain of Rolando and Harvey, respectively—which start out lending the book its ominous tension—are blunted, and the mood tips toward gentle comedy. It's a credit to Thompson that the contrived plot still holds the reader's attention, and that her tidy, optimistic ending never becomes saccharine. Beneath these cheerful shenanigans, a more truthful story seems to stir—it's a pity Thompson hasn't let it come to the surface. (Jan.)