How Mameve Medwed saved my summer reading life

About that pile of books I’m supposed to be reading…

Some time ago while I was reading through others’ blogs, I spied the cover of a book in a sidebar. If I remember correctly, there was somewhat of a tease in the caption encouraging me to receive the book free if I was willing to review it. You do know that I am completely aware of the promise I made to read all the books I have at home before I purchase another, don’t you? I chide myself each and every time I see something I’d love to read that isn’t in my stack of books. I’ve been so trustworthy. So diligent. Well, perhaps not quite tenacious enough when one considers the amount of time I’ve taken to read through a couple of the first books on my list.

Just a refresher: the whole point of reading everything in my house has been my cost saving measure: a sort of contribution to the family’s coffers since I’m sans income. Besides, I did take the time to choose and purchase these ah… tomes at one point in the past, mulling over the authors, considering the reviews, and projecting the mood each would lull me into as I read.

So when I saw How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved my Life in the lamentably forgotten blogger’s sidebar (I am so very sorry!) with “free” nestled beneath the cover shot, I thought that it wouldn’t be cheating if I accepted the offer. Sure, I’ll read a book and write a review. Technically, I wouldn’t be spending money for the book. It would be just fine if I sneaked this one in to relieve myself of the recent horrendous reads I’d suffered through. So I clicked. A free book!

The book was delivered, and read. I read it in two days. Not a month like Mapping the Edge. Not weeks and weeks and weeks, like Dog Days. Two days. Now, that’s more like it. Nothing like being back in the saddle again. Greasing up the ol’ reading machine. I’m back. Besides, it’s summertime, and what can be more perfect than a book that travels easily to the beach and back? A book that’s about antiques, New England, a little romance, an obscure biography by Virginia Woolf called Flush, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s thunder mug. Ahem… Excuse me?

Let me back up a bit before I truly begin.

Quite some time ago, I was in Cambridge, MA, working on a project at the Harvard Graduate School of Ed and happened upon Mail. The cover was an eye-catching yellow, and I was drawn to the author’s name — unusual. The setting was Cambridge — how coincidental; the protagonist a writer — and I wanted so much to be a writer. So it seemed perfect for a summertime read to ease my mind from the less than glamorous work I was involved in: curriculum writing. I no longer have the book, most likely loaned to a friend who neglected to return it, but I remember enjoying the woman in the story and her quirky personality. I remember her mailman, too…It’s been a while since I’ve read something by Mameve Medwed — nearly ten years.

I’m so sorry, Mameve. I know you’ve published other books in that time, so it’s odd that I’ve not come across one while traipsing through bookstores, or surfing Amazon’s cyberstacks. And I know that had I found one of those books, it wouldn’t be hidden in that dusty stack I currently find myself having to read. I would speak to my marketers, if I were you, because I enjoyed your first book quite a bit and would have read the others had I known…

Memories of Medwed’s writing came quickly back as I began this latest of her novels. Abby Randolph is an easy to get to know woman who sells antiques. Her store isn’t one known for grossly ornate 18th century European credenzas, or priceless Baccarat crystal candlesticks. In fact, her “store” is a booth that sits alongside that of others who have a passion for, and know much about old things that just might be worth more than we think they are worth. Like the porcelain chamber pot that sits in Abby’s booth. The one her colleague encourages her to lug to the Antiques Roadshow soon coming to town. The chamber pot once owned by her mother who was recently and tragically killed. Her lovely mother who, after years of chin-up tolerance with her role as one of “the Cambridge ladies” poet E.E. Cummings writes of, runs off to seek a new life: a life with the woman next door. Yes, woman. Her best friend’s mother. The mother of the boy next door she fell in love with so many years ago.

Medwed’s ability to sell Abby and her self-deprecating existence, her seemingly new found promise of wealth, and love, are what make this book. Otherwise, liking Abby could become a challenge. She seems not able to hold herself up or deal with her life. She lets people walk all over her. She just accepts things. But she knows it. And when she acknowledges her shortcomings over and over again, you find that you are on her side, cheering her on, wanting her to step up and push back against the pathetic people she has chosen to tolerate throughout her life: the pseudo best friend who is really only out for herself; her ex-business partner and lover, gone after taking what he could from Abby’s life as a Cambridge professor’s daughter and has moved on to a more profitable lifestyle; or the reporter who surfaces to get the inside story on the chamber pot, now authenticated and valued at a staggering amount of money.

Don’t most people fare well after they’ve received news of a windfall? Shouldn’t everything turn around in their lives, making their dull existence more bright? Can it erase the sadness one feels for the tragic loss of a mother, and a young man always thought of as someone who would be part of her future?

Maybe it can. Abby Randolph has to confront her demons in much the way that you and I would, failing over and over again, before she is able to arrive at what matters. Without Medwed’s clever sarcasm and tight narrative, without her insider knowledge as a Cambridge resident, How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life could be just another book in a growing list of what is now referred to as Chick Lit. Without Medwed’s dry humor and ability to capture the odd characteristics humans have, Abby could be just another female whose pathetic lack of self-awareness makes her unnoticeable. Instead, we are left smiling as Abby grows into herself and her life.

Mameve Medwed has saved me from the depths of yet another completely dreary read. Thank goodness. Now I can go back and read her novels I’ve missed in the past ten years. But not until I finish that stack. Promise. Well, maybe the public library has them. That’s free, too. Right?

I’m left wondering on whose site I originally found the offer to review this novel and will continue to do some investigating. My quest has dropped me into the world of publishing houses and their quest to step up their on-line marketing. It has taken me to Booksquare and a very interesting look at opinions on the publishing industry. It has also taken me to First Look at Harper Collins — a very intriguing opportunity for someone like me, trying to avoid those books I already own, wanting instead to wallow in the possibility of buying more, always more.

Oh, that heaven is a bookstore when I get there…





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