Saturday, June 4, 2016

Book Review: Miss Harper Can Do It

  • Pros: Annie Harper's humor; nice insights into a young teacher's life
    Cons: It didn't bug me, but some readers may get tired of the footnotes-as-narrative tool technique.
    Ask anyone who knows me well - or read enough of my online missives and musings - about my reading habits, and you'll probably come away with the impression that I don't read too many books written by women unless they are Star Trek or Star Wars authors.

    And for the most part, your impression would be proven mostly correct; I tend to gravitate more toward fiction that echoes my love of military history and technology (I've got a pile of novels by Tom Clancy, Stephen Coonts, Harold Coyle and Larry Bond in my bookshelves).  I also like non-fiction books that reflect my interest in world affairs, politics and geography/travel.

    But among my many volumes about war, espionage and escapist movie tie-ins, you'll be surprised to find a few books written by and about women...books that probably fit the sometimes dismissive label of "chick lit."

    Like many guys - or at least the ones I know personally - I tend to look at chick lit as the print equivalent of shows along the lines of Gossip Girl or Sex and the City, i.e. stories that delve into the romantic/sexual/relationship-based misadventures of young women in their 20s and 30s and basically describe us men as sex-starved manipulators, idealized leading men-types, impossibly hunky and long-haired Fabio clones or, if the success of the Twilight series is any hint, really hot and sensitive vampires.

    Thus, it may surprise many readers that I recently decided to take a leap of (literary) faith and give newcomer Jane Berentson's Miss Harper Can Do It a fighting chance and ordered a copy from Amazon.

    Granted, I was half-prepared not to like this book; "chick lit" is usually about young and incredibly smart/sexy/talented women who are half my age, and sometimes I find this sort of fiction either (a) boring or (b) hard to relate to.

    Instead, I was surprised at how enjoyable Berentson's debut novel is, considering that it's not written as a novel but rather a 24-year-old Tacoma, Washington' schoolteacher's quirky manuscript that starts out as an account of her long-distance relationship with her boyfriend David Patterson, a young second lieutenant in the U.S. Army who is now on a tour of duty in Iraq.

    I say "starts out" because as time passes (it's set in the early pre-surge stages of the war), Annie Harper's manuscript evolves as her feelings toward David begin to change. In the early chapters, Annie is trying to be the supportive girlfriend to her duty-bound man in uniform, but as the war grinds on and her relationship with her platonic best friend Gus threatens to turn into romance, "Miss Harper" starts to question her resolve to be the long-suffering "Army girlfriend" during an increasingly unpopular war.

    All this could have devolved into a tiresome and melodramatic scenario of romance-gone-bad and unforgivable betrayal, but what makes Miss Harper Can Do It a joy to read is Berentson's light-hearted approach to the Big Issues of war and its toll on the American home front and her humorous, even loving description of Miss Harper's third grade students, her friendship with an elderly woman whose husband was a World War II veteran, her somewhat quirky choice of pet, and - of course - her journey of self-discovery as a teacher and a woman.

    Berentson's approach is not a straightforward narrative, at least not in the sense that she presents Annie as a fictional character but rather writes Miss Harper Can Do It as though it was an evolving manuscript that changes moods and titles from chapter to chapter.

    In some ways, the presentation is pretty much "stream of consciousness" as Berentson's Annie begins her journal-like magnum opus, even right down to telling the reader that what he/she is reading is, at the present, a Microsoft Word file and that Annie isn't quite sure how to start or even what her final title will be.

    Miss Harper Can Do It may (or may not) endear itself to some readers because Annie has an odd habit of writing a short sentence about some individual, place or event, then annotate said individual, place or event with footnotes.  

    I didn't mind this much once I got used to it, but it does take some time before the mind gets accustomed to seeing footnotes in a work of fiction.   However, other readers might find this technique both unnecessary and self-indulgent.

    Another minor disappointment is that I expected - but didn't find - at least a little gratuitious sex.  I figured, wrongly, that there was a hidden bit of sexual innuendo in the title (Miss Harper Can Do IT?), but if there is any hint that Annie has a 20-something's libido, it is more implied than shown.

    Nevertheless, Miss Harper Can Do It is still a very entertaining read.  It addresses quite a few serious issues, of course, and some of the plot developments are not funny, but on the whole Berentson gets at least an A-minus for her first novel.