Five suburban step-families fall apart and reconnect in ten linked stories.
Pencil and paper ready? Here goes: Lu married Ward after Beatrix divorced him to marry Alan, who divorced Roxie to tie the knot. Moira married Ben after divorcing Tate, who now dates Roxie (see above). Tate’s sister Glynn, Moira’s ex-sister-in-law, married George. And then there are the kids: Liv, Alan and Roxie’s truculent, too-thin teenage daughter; Ward and Beatrix’s three sons: Devin, who refuses to speak in the presence of either parent, Britt, master of sarcasm, and Ollie, who cries; Ryan, Moira and Tate’s OCD handful, and Ashleigh, their 15-year-old sexpot (she dates Devin; see above); and Joey, Glynn’s son, who has more in common with Glynn’s new husband—especially a love of “Mortal Kombat” video games—than with her. Everyone lives nearby, in Oak Park, Ill. In the first three stories, “Loopy,” “Restoration” and “Ballad of the Barbie Feet,” YA novelist Ruby (Good Girls, Sept. 2006, etc.) begins to develop her many characters by moving a peripheral player from one story to the center in the next, and so on in the third. This deft technique deepens the stories’ competing personalities by letting the reader weigh the characters’ opinions about each other. Unfortunately, this daisy chain of narrative revelation breaks with the gimmicky fourth story, “Dear Psycho,” the collection’s weakest link. The remaining six stories, hampered by too many character sketches standing in for characters, are hit-or-miss: “Picture of Health” stretches so far out on one family tree’s limb—it introduces the girlfriend of a dead cousin—that its relevance to the whole fails to register. “Hug Machine” undermines Lu, otherwise the most appealing character of the lot. Only the title story, “I’m Not Julia Roberts,” in which a current and a former wife attempt to have an impossible conversation (think of the movie Stepmom), returns to the same storytelling élan of the opening three.
An uneven collection from a writer who shows promise.