Lorna Landvik’s previous novels were populated with warm-hearted characters who were just a little bit different - you could easily imagine them hanging out in places likeNorthern Exposure’s Cicely, Alaska or Ed’s Stuckeyville. The only strikingly original aspect of her latest release, however, is the title; the rest of the book is standard women’s fiction that covers 30 years in the lives of five women who are neighbors, best friends and members of the Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons Book Club. Landvik is a skilled writer, but she doesn’t do enough to distinguish this effort from the numerous other female bonding books that clutter Border’s bookshelves.
The novel begins in 1968, when Faith Owens moves from Texas to a small town outside of Minneapolis with her husband Wade. She is welcomed into the neighborhood by an impromptu snowball fight with her new neighbors, and in the discussion that ensues they decide to form a monthly book club. When one of their husbands disparagingly describes their meetings as nothing more than “angry housewives eating bon bons and yakking about love stories,” the women defiantly adopt that as their official club name. Faith’s fellow club members include voluptuous sexpot Audrey, outspoken radical Slip, grieving widow Kari and shy physician’s wife Merit. Faith is thrilled to have such good friends, but she is harboring a secret about her past that prevents her from letting down her guard with anyone, even her husband. As Faith guards her secrets through the years, babies are born, marriages falter, children grow up, crises occur and times change, but the angry housewives are always there for each other.
Landvik spins a predictable tale that includes many of the issues of the late 20th century - Vietnam, AIDS, domestic violence, homosexuality, feminism, Alzheimers, etc. I wish she had thrown a few curve balls into the plot. Also, she tries to accomplish too much; telling the saga of five women and their families over 30 years in just over 400 pages leaves little room to linger over any one incident or time period (sometimes I felt I was in the middle of Billy Joel’s whirlwind history lesson, “We Didn’t Start the Fire”). She does feature several thought-provoking, hilarious and spirited discussions between the Housewives (most notably the night they discuss Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex), but those scenes are too sporadic.
I was occasionally overwhelmed by the sheer number of spouses, kids and other family members that populate the novel. To add to the confusion, some of the chapters are written in first-person, while others utilize third-person. Actually, that gimmick fit the characters - quiet Merit wouldn’t feel comfortable narrating her own story, while small but fiery Slip wouldn’t have it any other way - but it breaks up the book’s rhythm.
Only one character, Kari, is closely in touch with her Scandinavian heritage, and I wanted more indicators that the novel took place in Minneapolis - for all of the pop culture references the novel featured, it would have benefited from more ethnic flavor.
But despite my complaints, I found myself hooked by Landvik’s dry humor and her ability to create a diverse group of likeable women. Each chapter heading lists the AHEB book of the month, and it’s intriguing to see how the choices changed over the years - from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road to Marabel Morgan’s The Total Woman (remember the saran wrap?) and Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years. It’s hard not to like a novel that clearly revels in the power of good books, friends and food. By the time I reached the bittersweet ending I was ready to spend another 30 years with these formidable ladies.