Friday, September 27, 2013

Remember Big by Kelly Wittmann

Remember Big follows the bumpy journey of Charlie Matthias as he tries to rebuild his life after bottoming out in his early 30s. When the story begins, he’s living in his wealthy parents’ suburban Chicago home after addiction wrecked his marriage and professional golf career. He’s surrounded by dysfunction – a bullying father, a manipulative mother and an assortment of insensitive acquaintances – all of them passing judgment on Charlie’s squandering of his potential. Despite his loathing for the shallow country club enclave into which he’s retreated, Charlie is hobbled by inertia. He has no motivation to find a new career or do anything other than pine for his ex-wife. His family’s relentless criticism finally goads him into making a new start, and he moves to the city. His apartment building’s owners are the parents of a woman he’d known as a teenager. The daughter, Erica Denner, also lives in the building, and Charlie is immediately attracted to her, even though she is the antithesis of what Charlie has been taught to appreciate in women. Unlike the meticulously groomed trophy wives who populate the spas and shopping malls of Charlie’s hometown, Erica leads a more authentic life – helping her parents manage the building, working in a feminist bookstore, pursuing artistic endeavors and treating everyone with kindness.

The main plotline is the relationship between Charlie and Erica. Conditioned to worship material success and go to any lengths in its pursuit, can Charlie find happiness with a woman whose modest lifestyle centers on the intangibles that no amount of money can buy? Interwoven with the romance are various subplots including friction with Charlie’s parents, who disapprove of his relationship with Erica; his sisters’ struggles with anorexia; and a run-in with a cop who carries a grudge about something that happened when he and Charlie were schoolmates.

Remember Big incorporates many conventions of contemporary romantic comedy – the spunky, insightful elderly mentor (Charlie’s grandmother); the juxtaposition of old-world traditions with modern American life (Erica’s parents are East German immigrants); the inevitable big night out scene in which the female lead transforms herself into the spike-heeled, cleavage-spilling vixen of every man’s fantasy. The novel avoids descending into clichĂ© thanks to the engaging voice of its antihero narrator. Charlie makes humorous, piercing observations of himself, those around him and the banality of American suburbia. Describing his parents’ aversion to visiting Chicago, he says, “It was dirty and loud and there were unpleasant poor people there. Rich and Faye didn’t miss the sophistication, or if they did, it apparently wasn’t worth the trouble of finding a parking spot.  They needed to be – always – in places where it was possible to just glide to the next destination, rolling slowly to a stop at the end of a path as smooth and crisp as a brand new polo shirt.” At times Charlie can be exasperating. He fails to exercise self-control at critical moments and lapses into self-destructive behavior when beset by troubles. But he is also compassionate and endearingly vulnerable. Explaining his reluctance to visit the bookstore where Erica works, Charlie notes, “Lesbians and their unknowable, half-removed society made me feel like what I feared I really was, a shallow ill-educated philistine from the suburbs who was in over his head, trying to be cool for his new girlfriend while everyone laughed behind his back. A guy who couldn’t be hip if his life depended on it.”

In spite of the narrator’s penchant for introspection, the novel doesn’t get bogged down in navel-gazing. Charlie pauses the narrative when he needs to in order to explain his thinking or relate a snippet of relevant backstory, but these pauses are nearly always justified and, with one or two exceptions, never become unwelcome digressions. As a result, the plot moves briskly enough to hold the reader’s interest from start to finish. My one quibble with the pacing is the abruptness of the events leading to the resolution of Charlie’s vacillation between his residual feelings for his ex-wife and his new relationship with Erica.  It seemed to me that near the end the novel suddenly shifted from third gear to fifth, and then a couple of chapters later, it was over.

Remember Big has a robust cast of secondary characters – some lovable, some annoying, some entertainingly quirky, and nearly all somehow dysfunctional. As each one is introduced, the author provides ample characterization through words and actions, so the reader immediately understands what type of person this is. Because each new character immediately makes a strong impression, the reader never has trouble identifying characters when they reappear later. On the other hand, I was looking for more insight into the motivations of two main characters – Charlie’s parents. Their behavior toward Charlie inexplicably seems aimed at destroying his self-esteem. For example, at one point his father, trying to convince Charlie to break up with Erica, says, “So you’re happy? You’ve been happy since you started – having relations with this Denner girl? Because if you are, you should win an Academy Award. Do they have a Best Lead Moper category? Oh, wait – you’re never in the lead, are you?” Nothing that Charlie relates about his parents adequately explains such cruelty.

For a novel whose characters have so many issues, Remember Big is a lively read. I enjoyed the references to Gen X pop culture and the skewering of upper-middle-class pretension (on being told that his pregnant sister is considering the baby names Camden and Mason, Charlie involuntarily spews out the cookie he had been eating). In addition to being entertaining, the book raises deeper questions about social expectations and what it means to be happy and successful. For this reason, I think it would be an appropriate selection for book groups, since it has enough substance to provide adequate fodder for discussion.

Remember Big is available from Amazon for the Kindle and in print.

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