A debut novel-in-stories deftly captures one woman’s life—from childhood through troubled young adult years that include motherhood and a failed marriage.
McKenzie’s nine chronologically arranged tales focus on and are narrated by Californian Ann Ransom, whom we meet in the opening (title) piece as an eight-year-old living in Long Beach with her mother Helen, the latter newly remarried to a prosperous realtor and pregnant with Ann’s sister Katherine. This story also introduces officious, temperamental medical-professional maternal grandmother “Dr. Frost” (a.k.a. “Mumsy”), who takes Ann on a whirlwind European vacation as her sibling’s birthdate approaches. Subsequent stories show us Ann at age ten, “kidnapped” by mercurial Dr. Frost as her marriage unravels; surviving Helen’s emotional and marital instability as a “gloomy and combative” preadolescent; turning into an amusingly jaded teenager, then a sexually and intellectually confused coed; and, finally, matured into an inexplicably unhappy woman who seems to be helplessly recapitulating her (now deceased) mother’s discordant, disappointing life. Internal evidence places these episodes during the 1960s and ’70s, a period that McKenzie evokes with subtly chosen domestic details and efficient narrative use of cultural icons Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg. At least two of the stories (notably, “Stop That Girl”) are marred by plot developments that strain credibility—and Mumsy is an unconvincing amalgam of Auntie Mame and any number of Bette Davis–inflected feminine grotesques. But McKenzie strikes pay dirt with a wonderful account of a miserable summer spent at a national park camp, where Helen toils as a “Ranger Naturalist” and flirts with an Australian environmentalist, while adolescent Ann burns with resentment and “tick-borne relapsing fever” (“We Know Where We Are, But Not Why”); and a plaintive, artfully indirect portrayal of young mother Ann’s estrangement from her cold-fish husband (“The Possible World”).
A fine first book, alive with energy, wit, and real promise.