Angels - Reviews
BooklistIt's not hard to figure out why Irish author Keyes's books (most recently, Last Chance Saloon) are best-sellers: she imbues her charming stories about flawed yet feisty women with incredible warmth and wit. This is her first novel to be set in America, and she does a wicked turn on L.A. - the land of complicated martinis and trendy restaurants ("long, hot looks were being exchanged over blueberry pancakes, and that was just the waiters"). Dubliner Margaret Walsh is devastated over the breakup of her marriage ("It's sadder than the hungry babies in Angela's Ashes. It's sadder than Mary going blind on Little House on the Prairie"). She decides to visit her best friend, Emily, a struggling screenwriter living in L.A. Although she fears that mending her heart will invovle going out with a gang of girls and dancing to "I Will Survive", she is soon accompanying Emily to pitches at studios around town, beautifying herself (for a small fortune) at various salons, and engaging in romantic dalliances. Wacky and wonderful.
Publication: Booklist (America)
Guardian Marian Keyes breaks new ground with her latest Walsh family tale, Angels. Patronise her at your peril, says Elaine Showalter
Reviewing Marian Keyes you have to resist the temptation to quote her funny bits, which come three or four to a page - a husband's "off-duty hair", a parody of slasher novels with "psychos who think in italics", computer nerds from "Goatees Anonymous", Californians with a dim sense of place and hearing who think "Ireland" is "Iowa".
In Angels, Keyes moves from her usual venues - suburban and boomtown Dublin - to Los Angeles and the film industry. She nails all the LA lingo, from the greetings ("Hey," "Yo," "Go,girl," and "You the man") to the terms of the trade: "good in a room" (skilled at pitching a screenplay to studio execs), "mattresses" (model-actor-waitresses), "pay theatre" (with actors paying for parts as a showcase for their talent), "so great!" (a movie going straight to video). The comic quotient of Angels is even higher than that of her previous bestsellers, and extends her breadth of characterisation to a wide range of convincing and entertaining Americans.
Keyes is a writer of romantic comedy who specialises in catastrophe and damaged lives. "All of my books are different," she has said, "but share a common theme of people who are in the Bad Place,and who achieve some form of redemption.I've been in the Bad Place myself many's the time,which wasn't very pleasant while it was happening but has since come in very handy for writing about."
Keyes's Bad Place involved alcoholism and a suicide attempt,leading to a successful rehab,out of which she began to write her bestselling novels about lovably dysfunctional Irish women.Currently the 67th richest woman in the UK,with sales of her books topping 5m copies,Keyes is now in the Very Good Place.But she remains committed to the belief that"the best comedy is rooted in despair. Darkness goes alongside proper comedy."
That credo is what makes Keyes's novels so interesting and so frustrating, and what makes her an artist manqué as well as a marketing phenomenon. With each novel she breaks further away from romance, and closer to the inclusive tragicomic voice of an Irish writer such as Roddy Doyle. She is brilliant at dialogue, sharply observant of manners, increasingly ambitious about narrative structure, unsentimental about the Darwinian dynamics of the family or the competition and hostility hidden in even the best friendship.
Around the fringes of her heroines'wrecked relationships circle the"coffin chasers",even more desperate female predators who pick the bones of dead marriages and make off with the spare men.In addition to their formidable capacity for drink and their stoic endurance of hangovers,her heroines all suffer from"mourning sickness".Indeed,Keyes is a kind of Chekhov of the abandoned woman,eloquent and inventive about women's feelings of rejection, loss and desperation, and their ceremonies of recovery.
These themes are especially prominent in the novels she has written about the Walsh sisters from Dublin: Watermelon, about Claire Walsh's desertion by her husband on the day she gives birth to their daughter;and her best book,the powerful,painful Rachel's Holiday, about Rachel Walsh's drug overdose and stint at the Cloisters,an Irish rehab centre.
Angels centres on Maggie,the oldest and ostensibly most stable Walsh sister.Labelled in the family as the goody-goody,"plain yoghurt at room temperature",she is on the run from a broken marriage."I've always lived a fairly blameless life,"she says."Up until the day I left my husband and then ran away to Hollywood, I'd never put a foot wrong. Not that many people knew about, anyway."
Unlike Rachel,who is in total denial and has to be mercilessly stripped of all self-esteem before she confesses to the reader,Maggie is a reliable narrator,but she takes her own sweet time about revealing herself.We are almost a third of the way through the novel before she begins to explain why her marriage to the equally perfect Garv went wrong,why she has eczema attacks that leave her with a bloody rash,why she is obsessed by an old boyfriend,and why she is so touchy on the subject of children.
Up to that point,and indeed beyond it,Maggie systematically dumps her angelic image by experimenting with eyebrow waxing with the sadistic Madame Anouska("Wery bed. More wex"),and light bondage and lipstick lesbianism with the gorgeous Lara.
But despite Keyes's talent, the romance structure, with its obligatory happy ending, always triumphs like an addiction, pulling her back into the realm of airport fiction and the mass market. Unlike the men in Roddy Doyle's novels,the husbands and boyfriends in Keyes's may be insensitive or even cruel, but they are not violent or abusive. And no matter what they confess or what they do - addiction, abortion, infidelity - her women are survivors.
In Angels, Maggie and her girlfriends actually go more than once to nightclubs and dance around their handbags to "I Will Survive". Underneath the perfect eyebrows, Maggie stays the same wholesome, romantic Irish girl, and we know that her prince (not to mention the entire Walsh family with tickets to Disneyland) will come to rescue her in the end.
Nevertheless, Angels breaks new ground for Keyes. While Maggie is the official heroine of the novel, her best friend Emily, an aspiring screenwriter who has moved to LA on the strength of a short film made for Irish television, steals the story away from her. Maggie has a wee career as a paralegal in entertainment law, but she has little ambition or intellectual drive. All her energy goes into her personal life. In the cut-throat Hollywood setting, such women are one-dimensional; when Maggie tells men at parties that she is in town for some "down time", they quickly walk away.
Emily, however, is a ferociously determined writer, "a dangerous person to go out with", who hangs around the telephone praying for the studio, rather than a boyfriend, to ring, and who breaks down only when a crude producer orders her to turn her highly crafted screenplay into a cheesy flick called Chip the Wonder Dog.
Emily is a heavy and high-speed drinker, and has a tendency to nick jewellery and other souvenirs when she is under stress; but she is a woman living her own life and pursuing her own agendas and artistic ambitions, rather than getting over one man and hunting for the next. Of course, Emily gets her man, too - this is romantic fiction - but she cares even more about making her films. If the Walsh sisters reflect Keyes's past,both as the eldest in a family of five and as an unhappy Irish girl,Emily seems to reflect her current life as a successful writer.
There are two younger Walsh sisters left for Keyes to write novels about-the cynical Helen and the feckless Anna-and since Keyes gives them both serious jobs at the end of Angels,there's a possibility that they may be following in Emily's footsteps as post-romantic heroines."People tell me I'm not going to win the Booker, and that's true,"Keyes has said,"but there are different ways of having one's work validated. I respect what I do; I don't take myself seriously, but I take my writing seriously."Some of her devoted readers might send a serious Keyes novel straight to video,but I'd like to see her try it.
Publication: Guardian (UK) Journalist: Elaine Showalter Date: 19/10/2002