|Her shoulders burdened with attitude, twenty-nine-year-old Claudia Bloom crashes into her new life as a recently recruited theatre professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. The bus she stole from her ex-fiancé explodes. The very appetizing DJ who rescues her and offers her a place to sleep is married. An over-zealous student denounces her for showing up late for lectures without a syllabus and for reading Victoria's Secrets catalogues in the classroom. Finding out that Clay the DJ's soon-to-be-ex wife is an antagonistic colleague and his mother her boss doesn't help. Meanwhile, her own already-disintegrating family has cooked up more complications than even the soaps can.
But Claudia won't let all this get to her. She is determined to live according to the standards set by the “Tart Manifesto” she wrote when much younger. What exactly is tart? Like other flavors, it also refers to an emotional state, but how is it different from, say, sour and spicy, bittersweet and acidic?
Tart is, as the dictionary definition quoted on the front cover reminds us, not just sour, but also sweet. It is, as Claudia observes, at the " edge of almost-too-out-there to be tasty, but not quite." To be tart is to be sharp and caustic, but not so acerbic as to be off-putting. Instead of puckering with disgust, we ultimately smile with delight and breathe with relief.
Being tart, it turns out, is a good, even an admirable thing. When a woman student accuses a male one of sexual harassment, Claudia doesn't jump onto the bandwagon of misplaced political correctness and instead asks for his side of the story. When the department chair asks her to stop the running of a student-penned play because an important donor finds it offensive and defamatory, Claudia refuses and organizes a counter-protest. When her cousin flounders with an understandable depression, she offers her a place to stay and, though skeptical, supports her search for a true soul mate. (Watching Rose go through this is, incidentally, one of the novel's smaller charms.)
Claudia is, moreover, much less of a tart than expected. Her scruples about an affair with a married man - especially one who is waiting for his divorce papers to come through -and her fidelity to someone she believes is two-timing her are surprising for someone who declares marriage, love, and monogamy "untart." In fact, I found the recurrent (younger) Other Woman theme annoying. Were Tart a more traditional romance, I would consider this stale roadblock to romantic resolution a flaw. But since romance here is only a piece of a much larger pie (or should that be tart?), I only wish someone as talented as Gehrman had found another way of dealing with this plot point.
More important than Claudia's relationship with Clay is her personal journey. In the course of her year at UC Santa Cruz, she learns who she is (both figuratively and literally) and comes to accept, if not like that person. She turns thirty, changes her cynical attitude towards love, accepts the responsibility that comes with a career and deals with the troubled heritage of her broken family. Claudia, it seems, is settling down and in doing so must ask whether and how she can still be tart. I am not sure Tart convincingly answers these questions, but I do admire the way Gehrman deftly weaves the central theme of how dysfunctional families have long-reaching arms into the novel's many subplots.
One final aspect of Tart bears mentioning: the style. At times, Claudia sees her life as sensational headlines; at others, she reduces it to provocative lists. Most of the time, it is sharp and challenging, but not as biting as might be assumed. To use the novel's own central metaphor, the tart writing stimulates the taste buds, so that long after we have bitten into it we recall the initial pleasure and hunger for more.