Book Review: This One Is Mine by Maria Semple
It’s truly surprising to me how very much I disliked This One Is Mine, considering how much I loved Maria Semple’s second novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette (reviewed here in 2012). Maria Semple, a former TV writer for shows including Arrested Development and Mad About You, has a flair for humor and quirky use of words. These elements are apparent in This One Is Mine, but the story itself is so loaded with unlikable characters making nonsensical decisions that I read the book with feelings of detachment and apathy.
This One Is Mine centers around two lead female characters. Violet, formerly a successful TV writer (hmmm… a stand-in for the author?), is now a stay-at-home mom to a mostly invisible toddler. And what a home! Violet is married to hotshot music executive David Parry, and they live their life in an architecturally significant mansion, with private in-home yoga lessons, cars to die for, and a nanny whom the couple — despite their self-image as super-PC and sensitive — refer to by the nickname of LadyGo, due to her rudimentary use of the English language in sentences such as “Somebody ask and lady go, I’m a friend of the band. Lady who plan the party? Lady go mad.”
Violet may be an at-home mother, but she’s rarely at home. She is unhappy, constantly on the verge of tears, and always flying off in pursuit of some activity that involves driving around LA and avoiding sights that might make her cry. Why no one has noticed that she needs therapy and medication, I have no idea. During a random drive through the city, Violet encounters a down-at-heels, dirty, drug-addicted bass player and launches without a second thought into what may be the world’s most unlikely and ill-advised affair. Teddy is, to put it mildly, kind of gross, not just physically, but in attitude as well. In their brief early encounters, Teddy manages to use every racial slur possible and engages in incredibly unsexy sex talk — yet Violet is smitten, to the point of obsession and at risk of throwing away everything else of value in her life.
Sally, our other point of focus, is David’s younger sister, a single woman in her thirties who desperately wants what Violet seems to have — a successful husband, a beautiful home, a life of ease and celebrity. Sally latches onto Jeremy White, a sports handicapper on the verge of stardom, seeing him as her golden ticket. As his career rises, Sally willfully (or, you might say, stupidly) overlooks his assortment of quirks and oddities in order to fulfill her dream of the good life. And we’re not just talking odd habits. The warning signs around Jeremy are pretty much there for all to see, in gigantic blinking red letters, but Sally’s relentless pursuit of her ideal life doesn’t allow her to see them.
Naturally, nothing works out for anybody. Violet’s affair implodes. Sally gets her man, but at what price? The book culminates in a few very unbelievable turn of events, as characters make one stupid decision after another. Coincidences mount, terrible outcomes ensue. The characters learn lessons and become better people for it. Um, really?
This One Is Mine is full of unhappy people, who seem to thrust happiness away with both hands as they grab at people and circumstances which can only end up as the worst possible choices. Healthy attitudes and though-processes don’t exist in this world. David is actually the only likeable character present, as we get a sense of his compassion, his devotion to both his wife and sister, and his ability to forgive. Other than David, we spend much too much of the book watching unbalanced people make terrible decisions and ruin their own and other people’s lives.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette had its share of quirky and not-so-likeable people, but they were balanced by the book’s satirical tone, as well as by having teen-aged Bee as a relatable point-of-view character. As a reader, I cared about Bee’s well-being, and saw the other character’s through that lens. Even the most selfish or clueless characters ultimately revealed a deeper core.
Not so in This One Is Mine. Neither Violet nor Sally are sympathetic characters, and I couldn’t find a point of entry for caring about either of them. The selfishness of their world views, the unending spending, the world of the ultra-rich — all served to further distance me from the drama. In the end, I found it hard to have patience with the characters or the book as a whole, as reading This One Is Mine largely consists of watching the two main characters selfishly mistreat the people in their lives. The ending was much too neat for my taste, as Violet and Sally end up chastened yet improved by their ordeals, bonding through calamity, and ultimately stronger for it all. None of it worked for me.