Fishbowl by Sarah Mlynowski
(Red Dress Ink, $12.95, PG-13) ISBN 0-373-25020-7
Unlike other Red Dress Ink novels I’ve encountered, Fishbowl doesn’t feel like it’s written by a romance author trying to be “hip” or an amateur author trying to be the next Helen Fielding. Sarah Mlynowski has a great deal of talent and style. However, I can’t say I liked the novel, or its three heroines. I suspect that I’m almost twice as old as the twenty-something author, and perhaps if I were closer to her own age, I’d champion the novel as a “post-modern ironic statement about the futility of human relationships.” Or something like that. But as far as I’m concerned, with the exception of Scarlett O’Hara, I’d rather read about characters I like.

Allie can’t wait to meet her two new roommates, Emma and Jodine. Since her previous two roomies moved away, Allie has been very lonely in her Toronto apartment, with no one to cook for or giggle with. She’s never even talked with Emma or Jodine - the rentals were arranged through her brother and her co-worker - but she’s sure they will become best friends. They can help her campaign to win over Clint, a friend from college who doesn’t realize yet that he is “Harry” to her “Sally.”

Reality doesn’t quite live up to Allie’s fantasy, though. Emma is a glamorous, intimidating fashion journalist who has an on-again-off-again relationship with possessive, volatile Nick. Jodine is an obsessive law student who keeps everyone at a distance, including her loyal boyfriend Manny. Despite Allie’s puppy-like friendliness, the three do not immediately click. They do muddle along fairly well, until a late night apartment fire causes ten thousand dollars worth of damage to their kitchen. Without any renter’s insurance, the three must devise a plan to raise the money and repair the damage before their landlord finds out and evicts them.

Told in alternating first-person chapters, along with an occasional insert from a wry Omniscient Narrator, Fishbowl moves along quickly and is eminently readable. Mlynowski, in her second RDI book, has a keen ear for dialogue and creates three distinct voices for her heroines. Unfortunately, they are all distinctly annoying. Emma is the least sympathetic. A selfish, shallow man-eater, she has few qualms about sleeping with a man who should definitely be Off Limits to any decent friend, yet she goes ballistic when Nick, whom she has dumped months ago, has sex with another woman. Her relationship with her family is antagonistic and unpleasant. Although she’s slightly remorseful by the novel’s conclusion, she’s almost beyond redemption.

I have to admit that I saw a bit of myself in the anal Jodine, who makes lists for every occasion and won’t allow her roommates past the doorway until they take off their shoes. Unfortunately, Mlynowski never lets the reader see any of Jodine’s vulnerability until it’s too late, and she never sheds her Ice Princess image.

Of the three heroines, I think we’re supposed to root for cheerful, generous Allie, but she is so ditzy and naïve that it’s impossible to identify with her. She’s totally oblivious to the fact that she is being betrayed by those closest to her, and her futile pursuit of Clint is pathetic. Sure she deserves a Happy Ending, but so does a puppy dog.

The Omniscient Narrator adds a bit of irony to the narrative, and you have to admit that the girls certainly display ingenuity as they struggle to raise a lot of dough in a short period of time - with unexpected results, of course. Fishbowl is funny and well-plotted, but if this is really what it’s like to be single in your early twenties, it’s rather sad as well.

--Susan Scribner

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