|I picked up Confessions of a Nervous Shiksa because I enjoyed Tracy McArdle’s short story “Happily Never After” in the December 2004 Downtown Press anthology, In One Year and Out the Other. It was a quirky little tale of a heartbroken heroine who found unexpected solace (but not romance) during an emergency New Year’s Eve visit to the dentist’s office. Unfortunately, McArdle’s talent for writing engaging short stories has not yet transferred to the novel format. Her debut release has too little plot and too much repetition to sustain its 350 pages. Even the interesting parts, primarily the details about the heroine’s job, lose their appeal when repeated ad nauseum.
After a strained Christmas visit with her parents, Alexis Manning’s fiancé David drops a huge bomb on her: he can’t go through with their wedding unless she agrees to convert to Judaism. Although Alexis has gamely made an effort to learn about Jewish traditions during their three-year relationship, she doesn’t feel comfortable with the idea of conversion and she resents David for trying to force such a significant change on her. Their relationship dies a slow, prolonged death, but Alexis has little time to mope. Her job as publicity vice president for a major film studio keeps her busy until the wee hours of the morning as she caters to temperamental actors, directors, journalists and stylists.
Also competing for her time and attention are her cat Little, who has a mysterious ailment that requires weekly visits to the vet, and her younger sister Molly who is surviving a devastating break-up of her own. When Alexis is given the responsibility of overseeing the publicity for a hot independent film, including its attractive young director and wild, unmistakably A-list-bound leading lady, she really has her hands full. Fortunately she has one sure-fire escape valve – the movies themselves, in whose clear-cut stories Alexis finds something close to her own true religion.
The plot of Nervous Shiksa never fully gets off the ground. Alexis deals with numerous but repetitive issues at work, while Little the cat gets sick, goes to the vet and gets sick again. Slowly she moves the mental barometer of the relationship with David from “beginning of the end” to the “beginning of the end of the end,” and eventually “the end of the end,” while reflecting on the movies she wishes her life more closely resembled. You’d be hard-pressed to find a climactic scene or pivotal moment in the entire story; one day Alexis realizes she is completely over David and is happy to live her life on her own until a better man comes along. McArdle’s handling of potential love interests is puzzling as well. A character who looks like a sure-fire Mr. Right fades into the background at the novel’s conclusion, while another who has barely registered suddenly turns out to play a key role. Having invested quite a bit of interest in the first male and little to none in the second, I couldn’t help feeling let down.
Surprisingly, Confessions of a Nervous Shiksa is gentle and good-natured, despite its West Coast setting. True, everyone in Los Angeles wants to be famous and has little interest in individuals who can’t help their careers, but McArdle eschews any major backstabbing or power struggles. Alexis gets along well with her boss, Viv, and is very close with her sister. She doesn’t even have any major issues with her parents. While that makes the book an amiable experience, it also further slows it down and leaves it without much momentum or bite.
McArdle’s own experience in film and television publicity is apparent, especially in the Call Logs that Alexis’ efficient assistant prepares whenever she is out of the office. While I can’t recommend her debut novel, I can vouch for her short story in the In One Year anthology. I have a feeling her writing skills will improve. Her characters are likeable and interesting; she just needs to learn how to build a better framework around them.