I think I may have heard about this book through a tweet by John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars, but I am no longer sure. This is Collison’s first novel and I could not help but think that showed. The first chapter is amazing. Collison sucked me in with a dream of death, of driving over the rail on a bride and plunging to her death.
The novel is full of quirky people and situations and that is part of the problem. Margaret lives next to Mrs. E., who steals things from her garage, barges into her house to use the restroom, and sets twigs from her tree on fire in her yard. Mrs. E. also screams at her for driving away Ben and demands Margaret find him because he is in danger. Margaret dismisses Mrs. E. as crazy.
Margaret works in an old tuberculosis sanatorium that has been converted to a multi-unit office building housing a drug addiction clinic, a ward for disabled children, and another for disabled convicts. She works at The Project, a grant-funded children’s publishing venture meant to produce basal readers, but which has and will produce nothing because it is staffed by women who are not up to the job, including Margaret. Celeste, their leader, is very interested in ghosts and insists their offices are haunted by a young TB patient who jumped to her death from one of their windows. Frances has taken up tennis and dates men whose foibles she chronicles during lunch. Sally Ann rarely eats lunch with the group and chooses instead to lunch with Bones, the puppet she has made out of cereal bowls who is either on her hand or in her purse and who speaks for her. Steinem, who applies for the grants that pay their salaries, is busy conducting an affair with the Personality, whom he’s hired to do audio versions of the books the editors have not produced. The grantors happily provide grants without asking to see any results and more grants flow in not because their work is good, but because Steinem excels at writing grant applications.
Margaret travels this world in a haze, a perpetual observer who seems unable to connect with anyone, including Ben, about whom she begins daydreaming when she is supposed to be setting copy for the books they will never print. Margaret began a relationship with Ben, a married visiting artist, that was innocent enough at first, but that became more, that became love, she finally reveals, but love she turned away whether because she did not reciprocate, feared making that kind of commitment to anyone, or because she could not truly be the other woman is not entirely clear. In response to Mrs. E.’s adamant demands, Margaret decides to find Ben, but continues to be delayed by silly excuses.
When the editors hear that The Project is going to fold and they are going to be laid off, Margaret finally makes a decision to find Ben, tell him she loves him and will run away with him. She drives to the farmhouse he rented and discovers the farmer boxing up Ben’s things and we learn the reason Margaret has a recurring dream of driving over the bridge into the icy water.
I was annoyed by this. Several chapters before this scene I nearly stopped reading and thought, but there was so much promise in the first chapter. What happened to the dream that drew me into this story in the first place? I do not care about these silly women in The Project, which seems cartoonish in its quirkiness. I am beyond frustration with Margaret’s handling of Mrs. E., who sets her garage on fire and still faces no consequences for her increasingly destructive and bizarre behavior. The back jacket says this is a tale of one woman’s awakening to her own possibility. I did not read that at all. Margaret faces reality by leaving town on a bus, bound for some other town. She is an artist who has abandoned her art, a lover who rejected love, a publisher who did not publish, and she runs again by getting on a bus in the last paragraph. Is this an escape from the university town she never managed to leave after college? Or is it just more flight from what is real, from her grief, from reality?
What was meant, I think, to be dramatic and evocative was, for me, frustrating and a fumble. New writers can craft wonderful introductions. Experienced writers craft sublime endings. If I happen to see Elizabeth Collison’s next book, I will give her another chance to see when she lives up to the amazing opening that promised so much in Some Other Town.