The Wonder Spot
By Melissa Bank. Viking. 324 pages. $24.95.
You are going to like Sophie Applebaum. In fact, she's going to be your new best friend this summer. You're going to drop Bridget Jones so fast, she'll bounce.
Sophie is the heroine of Melissa Bank's long-awaited second novel, The Wonder Spot. The author of The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing has created for us a sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued young woman who stumbles out of the Philadelphia suburbs and her tight-knit, uptight Jewish family and into New York City, where she keeps stumbling, mostly through relationships.
But she is so smart and her wit so piercing that she will make you forget all the hapless big-city ingenues who came before her, including Holly Golightly and the Nanny in The Nanny Diaries. Think of Sex and the City if they'd cast Janeane Garofalo, and you have Sophie.
The Wonder Spot is a kind of on-again-off-again diary of Sophie's life as she careens like a human pinball off a series of women who are braver, prettier and more successful than she is. Not to mention the men for whom she is never quite the one. And their mothers. And her mother. And her sniping grandmother and her womanizing older brother and her dutiful brother, the doctor, and her revered father, the judge.
First, there is Margie. The leader of the pack of popular girls teaches her to smoke in the ornate synagogue bathroom while the pair cut Hebrew school. Sophie watches as Margie pilfers religious objects from the bathroom storage closet. Though she is not guilty of stealing, she is guilty of lying to her parents about Hebrew school and her confused remorse is hilarious.
Next among Sophie's formidable friends is Venice, the cosmopolitan college roommate who breezes into the dorm from Antibes and immediately makes Sophie feel like a bag of laundry:
"I need a drink," she said.
When I told her about the soda machine in the basement, she turned and looked at me as though I was the last and possibly the longest leg of her trip.
Sophie's post-college plans for a career in publishing in New York are thwarted when she can't seem to break 17 words a minute on the typing test. This is despite practicing at the dining tables of just about everybody she knows, all of whom let her know when it is time to move out and move on -- including her grandmother Steeny.
The men who Sophie meets and loves let her know when it is time to move on, too. She runs through such a long list of characters that you begin to lose track. Sophie isn't right for any of them, but they aren't right for her, either, and Bank does such a perfect job of balancing their respective unacceptabilities that Sophie is never a victim.
In fact, she occasionally triumphs, as when she delivers a perfectly poisonous good-bye, uttered just as a cab arrives to carry her away from her duplicitous lover.
Sophie's life, which was never really moving forward, slips into neutral with the death of her father, Judge Applebaum, who is a wise and loving shadow over Sophie's confused heart.
"It occurs to me that in striving to please him I hoped to become the kind of woman a man of his stature would love," Sophie says to herself once, while tallying up her "overall lack of substance." But she finds a job writing junk mail and it pays the rent until she gets a job writing scripts for nature shows on public television.
Will Sophie find love at The Wonder Spot, the restaurant where she and a rock-and-roll boyfriend 10 years her junior catch a bite in the final chapter? It isn't likely, considering her track record with men.
But the truth is, I don't know. And I don't think Sophie does either.
Susan Reimer is a columnist for The Sun.