Break in Case of Emergency: A novel
Break in Case of Emergency reads like a novelization of a movie that hasn’t been made yet, but is that a bad thing?
And admittedly, what passes for a plot seems to have been borrowed not from just some other novel, but from bits and pieces of so many different rom-coms that it could have been called The Devils All Wear Prada, or any other variant on New York Women Are All Skinny Bitches and the Rest of You Are Just Frumpy and Sad. Or some such.
So there it is. Set in the same magic New York City that Odd Mom Out over on Bravo lives in. The one with the gleaming buildings, pristine juice bars, fantastic coffee shops, and menacing bodegas into which no one ever walks. A city of nannies, although you are more likely to be one than to have one. The city of rich boyfriends and darling husbands, who, even though they teach school, or are budding architects, and are therefore, you know, poor, are supportive and really listen to you, and get you pregnant at just the right time.
Jen lives in Brooklyn with her just-right husband, Jim. Her Darcy, if only she could learn to see him that way.
Jen went to a name art school once upon a time where she met her two best friends, Meg (old money) and Pam (no money) and now they, because they live in the magical New York, have stayed best friends still, even with their transition into NYC and real life.
Jen used to work for a prestigious foundation. But then came the financial apocalypse (a term that will come up again and again in Break, likely in order to give the tale relevance) and she lost her job. After a period of unemployment spent painting gigantic portraits that will become part of her poor friend’s art show, she gets a job at what can best be described as a “vanity foundation,” one founded by an ex-sitcom queen and funded by her more-than-generous divorce settlement. The foundation, called LIFt, has been established in order to do good works for women in the global arena.
Sadly, no one associated with the foundation seems to know how to run it or even why they should run it, except, of course, for Jen, and Daisy, who sits in the adjacent cubicle. Jen doodles during meetings, and Daisy has adopted a philosophy of, at all times, looking busy and days pass and then weeks and then months, during which each of their many different bosses proves to be inept, undermining, blaming, petty, cruel, demeaning, and rather blatantly full of bullshit.
And, of course, there are many many plot twists. More plot twists than a presidential election.
And of course, the reader stays a jump ahead of author Jessica Winter in terms of these twists, having read them all before. Or seen them in the Anne Hathaway movie version of the novel.
And, of course, we come away having learned some Important Lessons by reading the whole novel:
Lesson One: Success comes in strange ways, but it will most assuredly come if you are beautiful, intelligent, talented, and live in an up-and-coming part of Brooklyn (as the novel references it, “Not Ditmas Park”) with your sort of tweedy boyfriend/husband, who is a writer/artist/teacher/architect.
Lesson Two: Friends are a wonderful wellspring of love and support, even after times of disagreement (during the disagreement, however, the support falls away into hurt/angry silence, although, although silent, the love continues forever and ever), but Mr. Darcy is the bestest thing of all and you should hang on to him, even during times of disagreement over wasting your talent/not earning enough money/having a miscarriage.
Lesson Three: Bitchy rich New York women will let you attempt to curry their favor by sucking up to them and doing all their work for them and then letting them complain about the quality of your work, just before they take all the credit for it, but they will never really value you, or even like you, although they will tell you that they do and, from time to time, even allow eye contact.
Lesson Four: The publishing industry, despite the fact that it is melting away in front of our eyes and every year seeming more and more of a 20th century notion, will continue until its dying breath to publish mediocre novels penned by those who perhaps have read entirely too many other mediocre novels over the years.
It is not as if Break in Case of Emergency does not have its virtues. There are lovely turns of phrase throughout, like this:
“The rain against LIFt’s floor-to-ceiling windows chattered like a gathering crowd.”
Or this, the wicked-quick description of the sitcom queen:
“She is beacon and power source; she is an illuminated manuscript.”
Also, the novel opens with twin fun quotes, one from Zadie Smith (suggesting that London, what with Bridget Jones and all, works almost as well as Mahnattan), and this from Joan Didion (who is, perhaps, the creator of the modern-day magical New York City), from her essay “On Self Respect:”
“We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others an attractive trait: a gift for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give.”
The Didion quote gives the reader hope. It presents a thunderous idea.
The novel sort of sucks it away again.
In all honesty, there is nothing much wrong with Break in Case of Emergency; and yet there is nothing much right with it, either.
Its author is most assuredly a skilled writer, who composes sturdy and, at times, startling sentences that, strung together, spin out a coherent plot of almost an Afternoon Special sort, that, while neither new or particularly arresting, is well-paced and well-structured. It even has a rather well-conceived and well-written moment of climax (or anticlimax, more truthfully), that suggests the what-might-have-been had the rest of the novel risen to its level. Still she is an author of some insight and the verbiage to match it.
Break in Case of Emergency by Jessica Winter is perhaps the sort of novel that is best enjoyed on a hot beach in August. Or failing that, as a means of wallowing through the flu in February, should Netflix fail to amuse.