cover image Smoking Hopes

Smoking Hopes

Victoria Alexander. Permanent Press (NY), $22 (208pp) ISBN 978-1-877946-69-1

As a bleached blonde bombshell whose excessive plastic surgery has rendered her ""as unreal as animation,"" Charlie Dean-narrator of most of this richly written but poorly plotted first novel-relates her life in the service of men, primarily as a ""hostess"" in a Japanese geisha house in Manhattan. The strength of Charlie's voice and character renders her story continually surprising: a bookworm who enjoys George Eliot and James Joyce, she brings a wryly intelligent eye to her sordid employment, and particularly to customers' ever-constant hope that sex is part of her job description (it isn't.) Unfortunately, the narrative's odd, delicate humor, which pits Charlie's brains against her bimbo lifestyle, gets lost in unconvincing plot developments that involve Charlie's friendship with a stripper, both women's work as courtesans to Japanese businessmen and their trip via a commercial liner to Japan in search of Charlie's husband. How Charlie loses her confidence and emotional grip along the way, culminating in a grim yet predictable finale, remains unclear. Nevertheless, Alexander's subtly threaded explorations of love and hope, her sensuous, distilled prose and her incisive wit make this a sophisticated, resonant debut. (Apr.)