The Late, Lamented Molly Marx by Sally Koslow

April 21, 2009 at 6:33 pm (ARC, fiction, novels) (, )

I acquired The Late, Lamented Molly Marx through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. If you haven’t already, I insist that you go sign up right now. It’s a wonderful thing. The way it works is publishers send the good folks at Library Thing advanced review copies of their upcoming titles, and Library Thing gives the books away to site users in exchange for reviews. Each month a list of books available through Early Review is posted on the site, and registered participants can browse the list and request the ones they’d like to read. The requests are entered into a lottery and the randomly chosen winners receive advanced copies.

I requested The Late, Lamented Molly Marx because it sounded interesting. Molly Marx has everything a woman could want, a husband with a thriving medical practice, a beautiful daughter, and a great job as a freelance stylist. It isn’t until Molly is found dead on the bank of the Hudson River that it becomes apparent how un-charmed her life truly was. As Molly adjusts to the afterlife she can’t help but peek in on the people she loved as they struggle to solve the mystery of her death, and get on with their own lives

This was my first foray into chick lit, or women’s fiction, or whatever you call books marketed specifically to single, employed, middle-class, twenty and thirty something females. I studiously avoided the genre for years because I bought into the idea that chick lit was vapid fluff featuring superficial heroines. And, guess what? I was right!

The world of Molly Marx is all expensive bistros, Upper East Side duplexes, high fashion, interior design, and weekends abroad. All of the primary characters are rich and beautiful; they have high end, well paying jobs and never want for anything. They are sexy, glamorous, and shallow as rain puddles.

Intellectually, I understand why chick lit is popular. Like most mainstream literary fare it is pure escapist fantasy. Chick lit lets the reader experience what it’s like to be rich and powerful, graceful and fawned over, envied and ass-kissed. But, I guess I’m an anomaly because I’ve never had any interest in the rich and fabulous. Those aren’t the kind of people I want to spend time with, on or off the page. I prefer starving artist types; people who find a way to fit four roommates into a studio apartment just so they can afford to live in Manhattan; Salvation Army shoppers who aren’t necessarily into vintage clothing but can’t afford to shop at Old Navy, let alone Saks; Full-time college students who work full-time jobs, handle full course loads, and somehow manage to log hours at a required internship to boot. It’s true that challenge builds character, which might explain why the people who populate Molly’s world are so boring.

The biggest offender is Molly herself. Molly is completely passive. In life she never acted on her own desires, choosing instead to allow others to act upon her. She married her husband, not because she loved him, but because he was the first man to ask her. She moved from Greenwich Village to the Upper West Side, not because she wanted to, but because her mother-in-law wanted them nearby. She had a child, not because she wanted to, but because her husband thought it was time. Indecisive and naïve, Molly is more comfortable allowing others to make decisions for her than taking the time to figure out what she really wants.

She isn’t much different in death. Narrating the story as a disembodied spirit passing time in the Duration, Molly is able to watch over her nearest and dearest as they go about their lives, but is forbidden to interfere. She must remain passive, observing the aftermath of her own death, unable to ease the pains and shames it brings to light.

This makes Molly a problematic narrator. Though her voice is strong and punchy, her inability to act makes her a non-entity in her own story. More than once I wondered why Koslow chose to write this book in first person. She could have told the story just as effectively in third person for all the insight Molly’s perspective brings to the book. It’s difficult to invest in a character that spends her entire life and death acquiescing to others to such an extent that it robs her of her personality. And although I’m willing to concede that might be the whole point, it doesn’t make for very absorbing reading.

I never warmed up to the supporting characters either. Molly’s best friend, Brie, the heterosexual who dates women, is a fashion model turned lawyer who makes more money in a month than most people make in their whole lives. Molly’s husband, Barry, is an overly entitled, emotionally distant, compulsive philanderer. Lucy, Molly’s fraternal twin sister, is plain by comparison and her “sturdy” body makes her a shoe-in for the role of jealous frump. Each one is a caricature of a caricature, so flat and predictable it’s hard to care about them.

Pace is a problem in The Late, Lamented Molly Marx.It gets off to a slow start, taking nearly two hundred pages to find its rhythm. The story revolves around the investigation of Molly’s mysterious death. However,  Koslow is never clear about what makes it mysterious. It seems as though Molly was involved in an unfortunate biking accident, and the reader is never told what led the police to proclaim her death “suspicious.” As a result, the investigation never feels particularly pressing. I had a hard time understanding why the lead detective became so emotionally invested in a case that seemed so banal.

The combination of a dull protagonist and weak plot makes the book drag. Tack on an ending that manages to be overly tidy while failing to answer any questions, and you can understand why I won’t be picking up another piece of chick lit any time soon.

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