“. . . plays with the notion of the afterlife.”
“It’s not the tragedies that kill us,” Dorothy Parker once noted. “It’s the messes. I can’t stand messes.”
And so Mrs. Parker rolls up her sleeves and wades into the decidedly messy life of Violet Epps, the heroine of Ellen Meister’s fourth novel Farewell, Dorothy Parker. Nevermind that Mrs. Parker, as she was universally and fearfully addressed by her peers, has been dead since 1967.
Ms. Meister raises her from the ashes and plunks her down in suburban contemporary Long Island to serve as both Violet’s mentor and tormentor, drawing parallels between Mrs. Parker’s acid-tinged theater and book reviews for The New Yorker between the two world wars and Violet’s equally acerbic reviews as a movie critic for a weekly called Enjoy.
But Violet, unlike Mrs. Parker, can’t carry that stiff spine into her personal life, where she is the classic shrinking violet, socially inept and retiring in temperament as she agonizes over the loss of her beloved older sister in a car crash, dreads the custody fight for the sister’s daughter with the girl’s grandparents, tries to get up the nerve to leave her buffoon of a boyfriend, and mourns the end of her own marriage some years earlier following a miscarriage.
Mrs. Parker, like a foul-mouthed guardian angel, is there to help, although her meddling nearly loses Violet her job, her man, and her custody battle.
Ms. Meister reincarnates Mrs. Parker in the lobby of her beloved Algonquin Hotel in an improbable if imaginatively conceived scene involving the hotel’s old guest book and its ethereal contents. Soon Mrs. Parker is comfortably seated in Violet’s study, gin and cigarettes at the ready, plotting a makeover to, as she tells Violet, “bring your inner bitch into the light, where she belongs.”
Ms. Meister, like the legions of her fellow Parker enthusiasts, is well versed in the details of her idol’s life and work, and pays her the respect she is due as a serious writer, not just the chief wisecracker of the Algonquin Round Table. Mrs. Parker’s short stories, as Ms. Meister has Violet point out, are still read and quoted today as much as her light verse and her barbed one-liners.
And Ms. Meister tries to work out, in fictional terms at least, the self-destructive psychology that led to Mrs. Parker’s depressive episodes that included at least three suicide attempts and her chronic alcoholism.
Unfortunately, this leads to much daytime television psychobabble as the author strives to insert a woman whose personality and legacy is firmly entrenched in the early 20th century into contemporary women’s literature.
She does Mrs. Parker no favors.
Despite her reputation, Mrs. Parker seems politely flat in these pages, even when Ms. Meister maneuvers Mrs. Parker into Violet’s body for a night of sexual abandon with the alluring kung-fu instructor and Sensitive New Age Guy for whom Violet yearns.
Even more disconcerting, Ms. Meister packs Mrs. Parker off into the Great Beyond at the end of the book with a cloying sendoff in which all Mrs. Parker can muster for an exit line is “They’d better have decent gin over there.” (Ms. Meister unaccountably has Mrs. Parker’s favorite tipple as gin when, as she points out in an author’s note, Mrs. Parker’s actual and well-observed preference was for Scotch.)
It’s as if Ms. Meister’s respect for Mrs. Parker softens her portrait of a woman who could be almost pathologically vicious to even her closest friends—a combination, as Alexander Woolcott once noted, of Little Nell and Lady Macbeth.
Ms. Meister’s previous novel, The Other Life, posed the theory that the lives we wished we’d lived exist and can be traded for the ones we actually are living. In this new novel, she takes it a step further and plays with the notion of the afterlife.
But eternity, as they say, lasts for a very long time. “I can see it’s just as boring as a cocktail party when the bar goes dry,” Mrs. Parker complains halfway through the book, with 200 pages left before she gives herself up to her celestial fate.