Any Place I Hang My Hat, by Susan Isaacs

>> Thursday, January 12, 2006

With the exception of Almost Paradise, I've loved every single Susan Isaacs novel I've read, and I think I've probably read them all. One of them, Shining Through, was even in the top 100 romance novels list I put together in late 2004, even though it's technically not a romance novel (neither are a few of my top 10, for that matter, but that's a whole other subject!).

I'd settled in for the long wait until her latest, Any Place I Hang My Hat, came out in paperback, but jmc came to the rescue and sent it to me. Thank you so very, very much! :-)

No matter which side of the nature/nurture debate you're on, Amy Lincoln's prospects do not look good. Her mother abandoned her when she was ten months old (just a couple of months after Amy's father went off to serve his first prison term), leaving her in the care of Grandma Lil, who shoplifts dinner on the way home from her job as a leg waxer to the rich and refined.

When Amy is fourteen, she gets a scholarship to a New England boarding school -- her exposure to the moneyed class. After Harvard and the Columbia School of Journalism, Amy becomes a political reporter for the prestigious weekly In Depth. While covering a political fund-raiser, Amy meets a college student who claims to be the son of one of the presidential candidates. It's precisely the sort of story that In Depth wouldn't deign to cover, but the idea of tracking down a lost parent and demanding recognition intrigues Amy. As she begins a search of her own past as well as the candidate's, she discovers a new and unimpeachable grandmother and a mother who is much more than she bargained for. Most important, she finally comes to understand the stuff she's made of and finds the perfect place to hang her hat in the world.
Vintage Isaacs. A B+.

For once, the back cover blurb (or, in this case, book jacket flap blurb) really does give you a good idea of what the book is about. Like so many of Isaacs, it's about identity, about a young woman finally coming to understand who she is and why, and coming to accept herself.

At first glance, Amy Lincoln would seem to be pretty centered and unscarred by a, err, let's say unconventional upbringing, which included a mother who abandoned her when she was a baby, a father who spent most of her childhood in jail and a grandmother with skewed priorities, who was more interested in what type of cutlery was in fashion among the upper classes than in her granddaughter.

However, a fundraiser in which a young man crashes the party and melodramatically announces he's the son of the guest of honor, a potential presidential candidate, changes this and has Amy thinking more and more about the past, about her mother and what she might have gotten from her and about the possibility of looking her up and trying to understand why she did what she did.

Being a journalist, Amy definitely has the expertise needed for this task, and she soon sets on it. And do I even need to say that the results are unexpected, to say the least?

Amy is a very likeable character. I loved her sense of humor, the way she was perfectly ready to laugh at herself and her own foibles, and I enjoyed reading her observations of the world and people around her.

That's something I always enjoy with Isaacs: the narrators' voices are always so good that I enjoy every minute of the time I spend with them, whether what they're talking about advances the plot or not. I guess this book (and many of hers) could be considered a bit unfocused, because Isaacs does have a tendency to take detours (she'll go on for ages about the family history a secondary character, for instance), but I'd argue that this is what gives her characters, even the unimportant, secondary ones, such depth and distinctiveness. Her friend Tatty is a good example... she was perfectly three-dimensional.

Something else I always enjoy about Isaacs' books, and that was present here, is that her Jewish characters seem to me to be distinctly Jewish. I think this is what people mean when they say they expect a multi-cultural romance to have a certain flavor to it. Not that they expect characters of a different race or religion to be somehow alien, but that they expect that their race or religion has had an effect on them, to have shaped them somehow, to some extent.

I don't know if I'm explaining myself well. Going back to Amy, what I mean is that she wasn't just a character who, oh, yes, happened to be Jewish. If Isaacs had decided at one point "Hmm, I want to make Amy a Christian", it would have had to involve much more than a simple "search and replace" on her computer. She would have had to rewrite the book completely, because Amy's Jewishness is that ingrained in the way her character was written.

Ok, leaving that particular potential minefield behind and moving on. I've only now remembered, having written all this, that while this book isn't a romance novel at all, there is a romance thread in there. I guess that shows how important this thread was in the grand scheme of this book. It's nice enough, and reflects quite nicely Amy's growth, the way she has been able to get over some problems neither she nor the readers realized she had in the early sections of the story, but we just don't see enough of Amy and this person together, and the ending is a bit abrupt.

And speaking of endings, I very much enjoyed the conclusion to the main plot of the book, Amy's search for her maternal family. I don't want to give anything away, but I'll just say I loved that it was anything but pat and sentimentalistic. Just perfect.

On the news section of Isaacs website, I found the following tidbit:

Work In Progress
Susan is now working on her eleventh novel. It's about Katie Schottland, TV writer, wife, and mother whose first out-of-college job fifteen years earlier comes back to haunt her. Oh, her employer way back then was the CIA.

Sound good, doesn't it?


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