True Lies of a Drama Queen
by Lee Nichols
(Red Dress Ink $13.95, PG-13) ISBN 0-373-89575-5
True Lies of a Drama Queen has to be “contemporary women’s fiction,” or just plain “chick lit,” and not “romance” because it’s a sequel – boy and girl already met, probably cute, in Tales of a Drama Queen, and are rolling along in their relationship in this book. Because chick lit isn’t my genre-of-choice, I was wondering what there could be left for Nichols to write about. Plenty, as it turns out.

Elle Medina is living large in beautiful Santa Barbara, California. Well, not really large, but certainly interesting. She lives in a residential/commercial building where Merrick, her boyfriend architect, has an office. Life is good for Elle; she has a best-friend-for-life who lives in the same town, a singularly unattractive but very attentive dog, a good relationship with her credit counselor, and a nice home-based business (professional psychic). Or, as she refers to it, an intuitive counselor – a friendly voice with pretty good, if obvious, advice. Her business has expanded to include a column on New Age practitioners that appears in the town’s free paper, her best friend Maya is marrying a perfect man, and her boyfriend wants her to move in with him.

Unfortunately, he also wants her to go back to school to get a “real” degree so she can be a “real” counselor. Elle has no interest whatsoever in this scenario until she does the mental math on the student loan options using her sub-par applied math skills and figures out how much “income” this will supply her – the whole “loan” aspect seems a little vague to her. And Merrick doesn’t really disapprove of her, but he wants her to, you know, live up to her potential. But Elle isn’t really a “living up to her potential” kind of gal. She is more of a disaster-waiting-to-happen kind of gal, or really a creating-disasters-with-every-bad-choice kind of gal – a Lucy Ricardo for the new millennium. Which explains why best friend Maya really really really does not want Elle to be her wedding coordinator; or maybe it’s just because Elle seems to be intent on recycling the plans from her own wedding that apparently went away, along with her ex-fiancé, in the prequel.

Elle is busy cozying up to the other tenants in her building, trying to live out her “Tales of the City” fantasy with a group of people who clearly lack interest, and trying to keep Merrick happy by applying for graduate school but doing so in such a way that ensures that she won’t be accepted. Or wouldn’t be, if the school wasn’t just one step up from a diploma mill, willing to accept each and every applicant who can fork over the student loan money. She’s basically floating along, surfing through her swirl of self-created drama, when actual drama comes to her doorstep in the form of an internet site, Santa Barbara Grrrrls, that features embarrassing and mildly-to-fully-salacious videos. Elle’s dressing room impersonation of Nicole Kidman in “Moulin Rouge” is the new hit download, and when she features her embarrassment/outrage in her New Age column, it leads to a guest spot on a local radio show that snowballs into to bigger and better things, career-wise, if not personal life-wise.

The remainder of the book chronicles Elle’s parallel lives, as she continues to barrel forward in her I Love Lucy-esque exploits while her new career develops, she waits for her too-good-for-her boyfriend Merrick to dump her, and she puts on her Nancy Drew thinking cap to figure out who owns the Grrrrls (four r’s, no i) website so she can make them pay.

Unfortunately, this just sounds “zany,” doesn’t it? And zany is incredibly difficult to pull off without crossing the line into teeth grinding stupidity. But somehow, Elle never crosses the line. Maybe that’s because she actually knows who Armistead Maupin is, or because her exploits, while zany, make a convoluted kind of sense. They’re not harebrained, they’re just not as left-brained as the world would like them to be.

And somehow, the whole book manages to be on the incredibly entertaining side of the zany/stupid continuum. It is literally laugh-out-loud funny. Not to be missed scenes include Elle’s visit to a Human Development class at the diploma factory where the instructor/therapist – wearing a lavender batik gypsy blouse that Elle declares an offense against lavender, batik, Gypsies…and blouses – leads a session on Erik Erickson’s eight stages of human development using Elle as an object lesson. Also, the funniest bit of internal dialogue ever written might be Elle’s walk-on-the-beach silent meditation that segues seamlessly, and repeatedly, into fashion-fueled shopping fantasies, verses of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” and word association riffs that build from dogs barking to the Solid Gold dancers – that last bit being particularly good because, well, “Solid Gold dancers” is inherently funny and, at the same time, extraordinarily difficult to work into a comic bit.

Yes, the book is extremely well written, but ultimately it works because of Elle. She is a gem, a charmer, a mis-labeled “under-achiever” – she could actually have taken some pride in her work if she knew that what she was doing wasn’t fraudulent psychic reading, but “life coaching,” a service for which she could charge considerably more per hour and which could be listed on her business cards without embarrassment.

--Laura Scott

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