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THE WONDER SPOT by Melissa Bank

I just finished  The Wonder Spotby Melissa Bank. If you’re not familiar with Melissa Bank, she wrote the popular The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing, a 1999 collection of short stories about one woman’s attempts to find love and meaningful work. The stories are interconnected – they are all about the same person – but stands on its own as a self-contained entity. The Wonder Spot, though billed as a novel, is basically the same thing – a collection of stories about one woman’s search for love and meaningful work. Yes, her family members carry over from one chapter to the next, but each one deals with a different boyfriend and a different stage in the life of protagonist Sophie Applebaum.

While I was reading The Wonder Spot, I asked myself what was compelling about it, why I kept reading – because it far from a perfect book. I decided that the book is like slightly salted popcorn – there’s enough there to make you want more, but not enough to satisfy you.

Bank is a very good writer. Her protagonists are likable and funny, self-deprecating and flawed. Her style is spare – sometimes bordering on minimal. And while this minimalism is what kept me reading, I think, it also ultimately alienated me from the book. For this is really, at its heart, a short story collection rather than a novel. For example, in the chapter dealing with Sophie’s college years, the focus is exclusively on her relationship with her freshman roommate. That’s it – no mention of classes or other friends or anything else she did in those years. That’s fine for a short story, but, in my opinion, it doesn’t work for a novel.

Men came and went, chapter by chapter. Sometimes I wasn’t even aware that one relationship had ended before Bank had moved on to the next. One particular ex-boyfriend – a man who died shortly after he and Sophie broke up – seems to have played a large role in her future emotional life, but he is barely even mentioned. This is not to say that I didn’t know or understand Sophie by the end. I did. I just wanted some more consistency and a more thorough story.

I enjoyed The Wonder Spot while I read it, but looking back now, I didn’t take much away from it. It was a light read, which I needed after Trespass, but with so many books waiting to be read, I am not sure this one was worth the time.

If you like short stories, give this novel a try because you might enjoy it more than I did. If, however, you enjoy getting deeply into novels with consistent story arcs and no loose threads, this book may frustrate you.

Here is a review of The Wonder Spot from Read for Pleasure that I agree with. Take a look if you want another perspective.

THE WONDER SPOT by Melissa Bank

Bank_1 Many years ago, I read Melissa Bank’s The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing, a collection of linked stories about one woman’s coming of age and search for love. I don’t remember the individual stories too well, but I do remember being very impressed by how Bank’s sparse prose conveyed sharp insight and emotion, and how compelling her main character was.  I didn’t expect to like the book as much as I did.

Bank has another book out – her first novel – called The Wonder Spot. The first review I read of this book was in the New York Times (subscription required) by Curtis Sittenfeld, author of Prep (which I loved), and it wasn’t a good one.  Sittenfeld wrote:

To suggest that another woman’s ostensibly literary novel is chick lit feels catty, not unlike calling another woman a slut — doesn’t the term basically bring down all of us? And yet, with ”The Wonder Spot,” it’s hard to resist. A chronicle of the search for personal equilibrium and Mr. Right, Melissa Bank’s novel is highly readable, sometimes funny and entirely unchallenging; you’re not one iota smarter after finishing it. I’m as resistant as anyone else to the assumption that because a book’s author is female and because that book’s protagonist is a woman who actually cares about her own romantic future, the book must fall into the chick-lit genre. So it’s not that I find Bank’s topic lightweight; it’s that Bank writes about it in a lightweight way.

Sittenfeld had other complaints too: “[the] willy-nilly introduction and abandonment of characters is most problematic in Sophie’s parade of boyfriends, of whom there are about three times too many”; “[her] occasional serious observations are frustratingly shallow, cleverly worded more than insightful,” “[s]he fully describes events so peripheral they should have been quickly summarized if not eliminated altogether, yet she skims over important conversations.”


Other reviewers disagree pretty strongly with Sittenfeld. For example, author Elisabeth Egan, reviewing The Wonder Spot in the Chicago Sun-Times, called the book “vital and fresh and elegantly funny,” concluding that “the second time’s the charm” for Bank.  Author Jennifer Weiner, reviewing for Entertainment Weekly (subscription required) gave the book an A:

So The Wonder Spot, Bank’s bittersweet, tremendously winning return, isn’t just a great read. It is a wake-up call, alerting the literary establishment that stories about young women’s coming-of-age can still be enthralling, engaging, and deserving of their notice.

Here’s a blog post from Trashionista that liked the book, finding the main character “dry, funny and charming” and the book “wonderfully written.”

Whom to believe?  Are Weiner and Sittenfeld — one a noted “chick lit” writer and one whose breakout book was anything but — following their own agendas in reviewing Bank’s sophomore effort?

I’d love to hear from anyone out there in EDIWTB readerland who has read The Wonder Spot. Please weigh in.