Kristina Riggle, Real Life & Liars (Avon A, HarperCollins, 2009)
Kristina Riggle’s debut novel, Real Life & Liars, is full of unlikable characters who think and speak in clichés. Ms. Riggle is not a terrible writer—her physical descriptions are vivid and she is capable of crafting a lovely image and occasionally conveying an interesting insight. She is a keen if not terribly original observer of the dynamic between parents and children as well as between long married adults. Ms. Riggle convincingly describes a dangerous flirtation between her very married heroine, Mirabelle Zielinski, and a flirtatious colleague. Sadly, most of the novel’s characters, including Mirabelle, are so aggressively unsympathetic that they overshadow what talent Ms. Riggle possesses. Her characters are petty, petulant, self-centered, self-pitying, irresponsible, inconsiderate, and blind to other points of view. They are also neither funny nor capable of laughter: there is much sarcasm and smirking, but no genuine humor. Even scenes that could have functioned well as comic set pieces—at one point, Mirabelle’s teenage grandsons discover and smoke her pot—become an opportunity for ludicrous moral posturing: instead of laughing, the boys’ mother rants about her sons being at risk in their own grandmother’s house and Mirabelle bellows about the invasion of her privacy. Ms. Riggle’s dialogue is laden with clumsy, gratuitous exposition: “You were trying to force me to be a nonconformist. Do you get the irony in that? You wanted me to conform to your ideals of being a rebel. So, I rebelled by being as conformist as I possibly could. We were no different than millions of other mother-daughters in the world, only you were the one smoking pot and dressing like a hippie.” (Ah, now we get it.) Her characters converse explicitly and implausibly about the book’s themes (Is it worth risking security and comfort to pursue my dreams? As a parent, do I really have any control over what sort of people my children become? Should I sacrifice my youth to have a baby I don’t want? The answers are yes, not much, and yes, respectively). A good book forces its readers to struggle with life’s biggest questions. This book ham-handedly attempts to answer them. Ms. Riggle confuses depth of characterization with the random assignation of quirks: Ivan, the son, has an unendearing habit of constantly tugging on his ear, Katya, the eldest daughter, obsessively checks the weather forecast, and Irina, the youngest, possesses a random and insatiable sexual appetite. In an irritating effort to remind the reader that Mirabelle is an aging flower child cum serious professor, Ms. Riggle has her heroine smoke pot, do yoga, and quote Shakespeare. Mirabelle’s husband is a workaholic author of spy thrillers whose perpetually abstracted air is all we know of his personality. In contrast to every other character, Irina’s husband is sober and responsible. Ms. Riggle’s efforts to establish dramatic tension fall similarly flat. The frequent and awkward dropping of such broad hints as “How can he help but be protective? Especially after that one night” has the opposite of its intended effect—rather than making her readers yearn to hear more about the night in question, it irritates them to the point of losing interest entirely. Ms. Riggle throws a lot of “shocking” circumstances at her readers in the hopes that one of them will hook us: a cancer diagnosis, a mother’s decision to refuse medical treatment, a 21-year-old daughter’s unwanted pregnancy and abrupt marriage to—gasp!—a black man, sadomasochism gone awry, and confessions of love, hate, and adultery. For those interested in a fun summer read, I recommend Candace Bushnell—Ms. Riggle is more tediously solipsistic than fun.