Ellen, a very cool New Yorker from the very cool blog Wormbook (please stop by!), wrote an excellent review of Lesley Dormen’s The Best Place to Be, currently on a virtual book tour through TLC Book Tours, which I am publishing here with Ellen’s permission. Enjoy!
If you somehow haven’t read it yet, Melissa Bank’s instantly successful novel THE GIRLS’ GUIDE TO HUNTING AND FISHING presents a chronicle of a woman growing up through various episodes, mostly involving some man, which don’t so much build as layer over each other to deliver a portrait. Often imitated but never duplicated, Bank’s work is also probably the most popular contemporary novel in stories, but retains the chronological orientation of a more classic novel. Much more interesting — and more difficult to pull off — is the out-of-order sequence of Lesley Dormen’s book THE BEST PLACE TO BE, in which each story acts simultaneously as a self-contained story and another shade to the portrait of New Yorker Grace Hanford.
The first inkling I got that this book wouldn’t be just another Bank pretender was the mention, in the opening story “The Old Economy Husband,” of… well, a husband. Dormen doesn’t try to build suspense over whether her character, who in later chapters is single, attached and having affairs, will ever reach that conventional chick-lit milestone of getting hitched. And honestly, Grace’s relationships with men in THE BEST PLACE TO BE often take a back seat to other relationships in her life, from the disappearance of a close friend in college to the strain she feels trying to communicate openly with her mother. Each story is built up over a string of sensually evoked moments, from an early dinner of lobster tails to the sight of her husband reading late at night in a hotel tub.
Grace’s career is secondary to the novel, true, but her life is not without event, albeit the kind of small turns of which most lives have been built. But as we travel back in time, a portrait develops without the self-consciousness of “explaining” how Grace ended up the way she is in “The Old Economy Husband.” Her rocky rapport (often lack thereof) with her father and stepfather are turns in themselves, not (or not merely) insights into her future relationships with men. These causal relationships are so often forced in the service of epiphany or drama, it’s a relief that Grace herself isn’t able to reconcile all these stories of her past into her current self. That might not be the best place to be, but it’s a place we can all get to.
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