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Review: If Nancy Drew grew up, she could be a Janice Kaplan heroine

Cousins
Cousins
Deja Vu Productions

In between blizzards recently, I ran out to my local branch library to stock up on Janice Kaplan novels. I’d just finished reading two of them, but there were more and the library is right next to one of my favorite supermarkets.

It’s not just that Kaplan invokes Aristotle at one point as one of her characters contemplates how to get out of a dicey situation-- are there some things, she ponders, that are okay to do under some circumstances that you wouldn’t do otherwise?

After all, Kaplan received the Murray Fellowship for writing at Yale, where she was a magna cum laude graduate. As the Editor-in-Chief of Parade Magazine, Kaplan also interviewed the likes of Barbra Streisand and Matt Damon. Now, in several novels published in the mid-2000’s, she creates over-the-top crises and then has her overstressed-- but always well-dressed-- women characters solve them in zany but relatable ways.

And it’s not just that in A Job to Kill For, home-decorator-to-celebrities Lacy Fields remembers that diamonds will cut through anything and tries desperately to cut through a closed casket-- while she is in it-- with her tennis bracelet. It’s that, okay, a tennis bracelet cuts through twine but not so effectively through wood, and she has to think of yet another way to get out of her predicament. The clock is ticking, and it isn’t the biological one. It’s a real time one of not much air left, no one around, and only ingenuity on tap.

Through logical deduction as well as fiddling around, Lacy finds a screw on a hinge and remembers that she has used just that kind of toggle while hanging a picture. But she can’t turn the metal screw well, what with her bare hand sore from all that work with the tennis bracelet. Fortunately, she says, “I grabbed the edge of my blouse, but it was too short to reach. I tugged at the buttons, then squirmed around to see if I could get it off. See, I was really lucky. I happened to be wearing a linen Calvin Klein. A silk blouse would have been too slippery.”

What makes Kaplan’s novels best-sellers is that the sublime and the hilarious are attached at some crucial place near the intellectual funnybone. The Botox Diaries, The Men I Didn’t Marry, and Mine Are Spectacular were co-written with author Lynn Schnurnberger. On her own, Kaplan continues the fast pace with a blockbuster situation for her readers--and her characters--in the first paragraph.

Lacy Fields, the decorator in A Job to Kill For (2008), is also featured in Looks To Die For (2007), as the wife of a plastic surgeon framed for a murder in the very first sentence: “The night the police came to arrest my husband for murder, I was upstairs, killing myself on the treadmill.” And in A Job to Kill For, she finds one her clients inconveniently dead. “If I had known Cassie Crawford would die, I might not have joked about wanting to kill her,” is sentence one.

The Fields household, with a son getting ready to apply to college, a teen daughter who can swing from Goth to vamp in the space of a paragraph, and an afterthought little boy who still gets his bedtime stories even while Mom is getting ready to race out the door, is clearly on the personal radar screen of women readers of a certain age. But even with that in the bag, Kaplan amps up the plot elements with details of who designed what and visits to dangerous haunts, and the covers always show her characters wearing shoes that are to die for.

And she sneaks in thoughtful looks at what it means to live a good life in the context of what some would also call “the" good life. That's why the Aristotle, family bonding around computers and the dinner table, thoughtful husband-wife conversation, and a sharp look at keeping balance when excess is what surrounds.

Susan Isaacs fans will love these books and for some of the same reasons they like her: locations in posh neighborhoods, knowledgeable references to just the right end-table, an adventuresome main character with sharp eyes, an ironic bent, and the unexpected mystery right upfront.

Don’t fool yourself by being a purist, either: pre-boomer sleuth Nancy Drew, whom even Kaplan invokes at one point, wasn’t of the hoi polloi. She flew off to dude ranch vacations or lake getaways at the drop of a hat and she didn’t live anywhere near tracks that had a wrong side. If she were funnier, zanier, contemporary, and lived in LA or on LI, she might have turned out like a Kaplan heroine.

Linda Chalmer Zemel also writes the Buffalo Alternative Medicine column. She teaches in the Communication Department at SUNY Buffalo State College. In her novel, Witch Hunt (Kindle), a young widow moves to Salem, MA, and finds that purchasing a condo on land once owned by an accused witch wasn’t a good property choice. Zemel’s new children’s book, Cousins, is available on amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.

Contact Linda at writer14221@yahoo.com