Otherwise Engaged
by Suzanne Finnamore
(Knopf, $22, PG) ISBN 0-375-40652-2
****
Otherwise Engaged is the third novel I've read this year featuring a woman on the verge of marriage, and it is by far the best of the lot, thanks to an engaging, if neurotic, leading lady. The heroines of the other two books (The Accidental Bride by Janice Harayda and Altar Ego by Kathy Lette) were unsympathetic characters whose extreme reactions to their impending nuptials could only happen in fiction (one bride jumped out of the church's bathroom window to escape her own wedding).

Eve, the heroine of this novel, is just an average 36 year old woman whose lover of three years has finally popped the question. She's thrilled but also scared out of her wits. In other words, she's having a fairly normal reaction for an engaged woman. She's someone I could relate to, even though my "cold feet" stage occurred more than a dozen years ago.

In first-person narrative of brief vignettes, the novel covers the 12 months between the engagement and the wedding. During that time, Eve obsesses almost constantly. She loves her fiancÚ, Michael, a divorced but charming Jewish man who is eight years her senior. But she has trouble with the concept of forever.

The book perfectly captures the labile emotions of the soon-to-be wedded.:

"What's alarming now," I said to (my therapist), " is whenever I notice anything about Michael, I hear the striking of a Chinese gong and the words FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE echo through my head."
"Like what?" he asked, far too interested.
"Like the way hair grows on his earlobes," I said.

On the other hand, there are moments when Michael does something sweet or funny, and Eve is struck with absolute certainty that she is the luckiest woman in the world, that she is happier than she deserves to be: I don't know how I got Michael. Maybe I just had a store credit from some other very lonely and shitty life.

Eve is also worried that her ambivalent feelings don't match the media's image of the happily-engaged.

I feel sad that Michael and I are not paralleling the engaged couple in the print ad for Tiffany's, all dressed up and twenty and hugging so tight you couldn't slide a pencil in between. These days we more closely resemble two morbid grouchy orangutans in a small cage at a testing facility.

Otherwise Engaged is witty, cosmopolitan and surprisingly sweet when it chronicles its heroine's neurotic waltz towards the altar. The novel's other subplots, including Eve's advertising job and the loss of a close friend, are flimsy and don't have much impact.

The novel is one of many I have read lately that follow the "Steven Wright School of Fiction," named (by me) after the laconic stand-up comedian. These books feature short chapters or scenes with ironic punch lines, strung together with a vague sense of forward plot movement. They certainly aren't great literature. But they're entertaining as hell. Judging from the author bio and acknowledgements, Otherwise Engaged is at least semi-autobiographical. Ms. Finnamore is now the mother of a newborn son; I can't wait to see what she does with that material.

--Susan Scribner


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