Brenda L. Baker's
The Elusive Mr. McCoy
I'm not really into chick lit. Something to do with my being a late fifties year-old guy, I suppose. However, those advanced years, assuming an insidious, creeping, level of maturity may also explain why I immensely enjoyed Brenda L. Baker's new novel, The Elusive Mr. McCoy. So much so that on completing it I immediately sent her a congratulatory email (yes we are friends) telling her I was misting up over the last couple of chapters and that, with a couple of minor reservations, I felt the novel succeeded remarkably well. Well, she immediately (and figuratively) wrapped her writerly paws around my ankle and with supplicating puppy-dog eyes and caffeinated bribes tried to extract from me the nature of those reservations. Typical writer. Hit me with your worst shot. Tell me where in the hell I went wrong. Don't embarrass me with the good stuff.
The good stuff begins with BLB's skill as a writer. "McCoy" is well-constructed, with all the action flowing from the opening scene when the book's namesake, who happens to be a bigamist leading a double (or possibly triple) life collapses in a trendy coffee shop. Chapters almost unfailingly end with hooks which ratchet up the reader's interest in the characters and their circumstances. BLB in not self-indulgent as writer. She serves up the reader interesting characters of both sexes, as well as a narrative voice that includes many psychologically acute but humourous observations such as "Middle age may not be as intense as adolescence, but it is much less embarrassing." Furthermore, she challenges the reader's heart with a moral theme that is of consequence for male and female alike: the nature of forgiveness. Are true understanding and forgiveness one and the same thing? The Elusive Mr. McCoy demonstrates, or more aptly, makes the reader feel, that indeed they are.
This brings me to minor reservation number one. McCoy's wives, Kendra and Lesley- they are both gorgeous in different ways- are supremely insulted because... well, I'm unable to say because it would be a spoiler. Suffice it to say that I don't get it. If someone wants to use my face atop an early Schwartzenegger body and have me maliciously enslave some realm or other, I say cool! Go for it. But these women go through quite the conniptions forgiving him for this unmentionable crime- which in one case, he didn't really commit- whereas I see it as perhaps a kind of twisted flattery. Must be a guy thing...
While we are on the reservations, let's move to number two- very minor, but one sentence that makes me want to strangle BLB for writing it and her editor for leaving it in. It is the moment that Kendra and Lesley realize that understanding each other is going to be necessary to heal the pain that McCoy's duplicity has caused both of them:
"Kendra hesitates, then lightly touches Lesley's fingers, granting forgiveness as though it were a coin." What a beautiful sentence! So simple and sweet. She hands her business card to Lesley and says, "Call me. We should talk." OK, I guess. It could have ended with 'call me' and Lesley hesitantly receiving the card. But, unfortunately there is more. Kendra says, "You should know the truth." Arrgh! Cue the melodramatic organ music. Throw the back of the wrist to the upturned forehead. Cut to the detergent commercial. Yikes. 'Nuff said.
Rolling right on from the minor to the picayune, though the story is set in Portland, Lesley takes out two cans of 'pop'- Don't the Americans call that sugared water 'soda'? Or have our colloquialisms infected the Pacific northwest? Then, in one of several artfully done back-story sequences, McCoy tells Lesley he has been working on the cabin for six years, then in the next breath tells her to watch out for the rotten second step. BLB, anyone working on a place for even a month would fix that step very early because they were hauling all kinds of wires, wallboard etc. into the house and would be risking a broken ankle or worse every time.
Now, what's the opposite of reservation? Acclamation? Yes, let me acclaim how well BLB handles her male characters- human, believable and endearing, particularly in the father-son relationship between Jason and Fletcher. Fletcher (Jason's son) earns triple bonus points from this reviewer for being an unlikely fan of Young Frankenstein, one of the all-time comedy classic movies. Then, not to give too much away, a romance blossoms between Jason and one of the bereft wives, a romance which BLB handles with admirable subtlety and deftness:
"The coffee maker gurgles and hisses, signalling the end of the brew cycle. Jason pours coffee into two porcelain mugs with cornflowers that are the same saturated shade of blue as his eyes. 'You could stop the payments. See what happens.'"
Here is a mundane business-like scene where within a sentence Baker subtly shifts the point of view to Kendra's. Without overtly saying so she lets the reader know that the woman, as a woman, is aware of the attractive colour of the man's eyes. The rest of the romance, which sneaks up on the reader as well as on the characters, is handled just as deftly and contributes to the undeniable emotional power of the book.
Despite being well outside the target audience for The Elusive Mr. McCoy, I was touched and even transformed by this book. Brenda L. Baker may be writing chick lit, or women's literature, or book-club ballast, but she is also coming from an insightful and very human place that even an ageing, sports-loving, poker-playing guy such as myself can thoroughly enjoy. I'd recommend it to anyone who appreciates a good story.