Laurie Graham


"The Great Husband Hunt"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark NOV 11, 2003)

"Are we ruined, Uncle Israel? Am I still a mustard heiress?"

"Poppy!" Aunt Fish said, "This is a thing to have said about one. One should not say it of oneself."

The Great Husband Hunt

Laurie Graham knows how to write -- she packs a lot in a seemingly innocuous sentence and deftly delivers us a main character that is affectionately irrepressible.

Read excerptBut Graham doesn't know the first thing about getting the title right. Especially if one judges the book by this cover; though quaint, it totally misrepresents the book. This is not a "ya-ya" book, which the cover seems to insinuate. It is far more worldly in that it takes us for a spin through the major events of the twentieth century -- filtered through the outlook and experiences of Poppy Minkel, a wealthy and independent-thinking "modern" women who refers to herself as the mustard heiress (a hint at the title I would have chosen...). Though Poppy is not exactly friendless, she doesn't have a group of girlfriends that she pals around with for life. She does have mother trouble though, actually double mother trouble, given that both her mother and her childless Aunt Fish have made her their project. Poppy goes to great lengths to get out from under -- but as she tells us right off, she believes in "stealthy sabotage rather than outright rebellion."

Almost from the start, readers will find that "the great husband hunt" has been called off for Poppy Minkel, our precocious albeit naive 15-year-old narrator. While returning home from business across the Atlantic, her father tragically dies aboard the Titantic. Now a widow, her mother Dora decides that it's a blessing to have one attractive daughter who has married well (Poppy's sister, Honey) and one "plain" daughter who can be "a help and comfort" to her in widowhood. And thus with Aunt Fish's help, Dora begins a very proper grieving process, one that ultimately improves their standing in the New York City society.

Poppy immediately seizes upon the benefit of all this disruption in their lives -- destined now to be a spinster, she no longer needs to maintain the nightly ear flattening regiment, twice-weekly neck whitening applications and daily hair straightening ordeal. Living a quiet life with her ma is just fine, since she had already resolved not to marry; she's not at all impressed with her brother-in-law and given her mother's limited imagination assumes a similar man to have been her fate.

Very quickly, Poppy narrates us through the next few years, never missing a beat as she interjects her naive "worldliness." Even something as predictable as learning where babies come from, ends up getting a bit mucked between her mother's version and the "Irish" (maid) version. Though what she does deduce is what she knew all along about her useless brother-in-law, that he was to blame.

Then a year short of her coming into her inheritance, war breaks out, giving Poppy a chance to get out of the house for a greater good. Though to hear her delusional version of things, is a chuckle. As the way that all tragedies seem to work out for Poppy, she finds a benefit in war, "suddenly Ma and I had full and important lives. We talked all evening about household economies we might make as part of our war effort. I even steer our conversation round to the expedience of riding in public trolley cars." The war effort becomes a euphemism for behaving in other than strictly proper ways and even for being able to rub elbows with those not in one's own (or one's desired) circle and soon Dora and Aunt Fish are members of a charity organization in which it slowly dawns on Poppy that her family is Jewish. This she confirms by going to talk with Uncle Israel, the only reliable figure in her family. And then her mom. "Uncle Israel need not have worried about Ma. She knew all about our Jewishness but had simply never gotten around to discussing it." Actually Dora and Aunt Fish decided early on after moving from the mid-West and needing to remake their image, to not limit their upward societal standing with any kind of religious affiliation.

So far I've conveyed some of Poppy's formative years, which just set us up for who she is. The rest of Poppy's life is full of unusual surprises for the reader, the choices she makes aren't exactly what one would expect (or condone) and somehow even as she gets wiser, she still maintains a certain naivety about her surroundings or the events around her. But this is the humor/honesty in the book. Despite her mother's early plans to keep her home with her, Poppy does quite well for herself -- as she goes from New York City to Paris to England -- even becomes a part of the British Royal Family -- then back to Paris, another war and back again to New York City in which she becomes an important influence on the art world. By the end of the novel and in her later years, she is actually a grand old lady, though still quite quirky.

What I found to be both enjoyable and unusual is her viewpoint -- she sees the twentieth century from a different perch than most. Poppy is rich, she can do what she wants, and even though she helps out the Unfortunates throughout her life, she almost always does so for the wrong reasons. Born in 1897, she is quite the "modern" women. Though the feminist movement does come into existence during her lifetime, it can't be said that Poppy's independence makes her an early feminist. It's simply that as heir to Minkel's Mighty Fine Mustard, she has had the mustard to live life as she wants and not as she's bred.

When I picked up this book I was expecting a silly but hopefully entertaining read. It is my fortune that this book greatly exceeded that expectation -- it's not silly, but it is entertaining. The author has created a very unique voice for stirring up some food for thought -- surely marriage and husbands are central to this book but certainly not the only topic that I'd put up for discussion in a reading group. Now that I've finished the book, I read the title with a different intonation. For me, the emphasis is now on the word "great" meaning the quality of one's husband versus "great" meaning the magnitude of the hunt. The cover, though, no matter how I look at it, is inexcusable, it was not designed by someone who read this book. And that is their misfortune.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 13 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Great Husband Hunt at MostlyFiction.com

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"The Future Homemakers of America"

(Reviewed by Shannon Bloomstran OCT 13, 2002)

The Future Homemakers of America

The title of Laurie Graham's newest novel, The Future Homemakers of America conjures up images of high school girls whipping up ungodly concoctions with Campbell's cream of chicken soup. Fortunately for readers, the story actually is about as far from ruffled aprons and Crisco as you can get. It's sort of a Rosie the Riveter meets the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, a fast and fun, if slightly flawed read.

TRead excerpthe female friends in question in this book are all stationed in northern England with their Air Force husbands in the 1950's. Since their husbands are usually off fighting the cold war against the godless communists, the women find they must stick together or go quietly crazy. The novel centers on Peggy Dewey, a no-nonsense Texas fireball. Her zany cohorts include Lois, the good time girl; apple polisher Audrey, quiet Gayle who seeks comfort in a whiskey bottle, and Betty, whom Lois describes as "the pie crust queen." Together the women meet up with Kath, a local woman who has troubles of her own. The characters are well drawn, but static. The plot doesn't allow them much growth or change; the women merely revolve around their circumstances. Graham does a good job providing enough detail to make the characters all endearing and they do seem to share a genuine friendship. They remain friends for decades despite the fact that it seems none of them, save Peggy, like each other very much.

In attempting to integrate as many social and political events as possible, the novel suffers from what I call the "then this happened" syndrome. The women experience, and react to, events ranging from the Korean War to the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. The novel sweeps through almost 40 years of post-war history and Graham makes the events serve the characters, rather than the other way around. It gives the whole novel a Forrest Gump-like veneer. These ladies do share a world of personal trouble too. Throughout the novel the women confront marriage, divorce, domestic violence, alcoholism, infidelity, cancer, taxidermy, vermiculture (that's worm farming to you and me) and faith healing. The latter occurs when one woman discovers a gift for curing others' dental problems through prayer. Four out of five dentists surveyed hope this doesn't catch on.

Graham does have a catchy turn of phrase and some of her observations are quite funny. In commenting on her pilot husband's parenting skills, Peggy remarks, "Amazing how a man can know so much about aerodynamics and so little about psychology, but I guess the brain only has room for so much space." On her sister's housekeeping skills, she says, "If there was one thing my sister Connie had a gift for it was turning a house into a health-hazard." Some of the dialogue, however, does not ring entirely true. Chalk this up to the fact that Graham is a British writer trying to write in American dialect. More distressing is the fact that the novel is loaded with racist characters, understandable since it does take place largely during a less enlightened time. But Graham seems to paint these ideas as quaint, old-fashioned, notions rather than as a dangerous social force.

Graham chooses to structure the novel with very short chapters; some in fact, could stand on their own as short stories or flash fiction. It helps create the "life is rushing past us" feeling that we all experience. In fact, I felt that I knew more about what happened to the characters than about the characters themselves. I do believe that an author can have both well-developed characters and an event-filled plot. The best recent example of this can be found in the work of Richard Russo, especially his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Empire Falls. Interestingly, Russo provides a nice front-cover endorsement of "Future Homemakers." In the end, I do believe that "Homemakers" has more in common with Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood than with Empire Falls. While it is funny and sometimes touching, in the end, the book is more about how families fall apart than how friendships endure.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 15 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Future Homemakers of America at MostlyFiction.com



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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

*Published as The Unfortunates in the U.K. (in July 2003)

Non-Fiction

  • The Parent's Survival Guide
  • The Marriage Survival Guide
  • Getting it Right

 

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Book Marks:

 

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About the Author:

Laurie GrahamLaurie Graham  was born in 1947, in post-war Britain, a grey place of bombed buildings and rationed food. She begin writing in her mid-30s when she realized that she had to feed her four children after her marriage failed and no real career.

Over the years, Graham has written over 15 books including fiction and non-fiction, numerous radio plays for the BBC, short stories and occasional journalism. Dog Days, Glen Miller Nights was longlisted for both the Orange Prize and the Booker Prize. She lives in Venice with her second husband, whom she met through a lonely hearts ad and has been happily married to Howard ever since.

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