They don’t write too many novels about the class of characters in Dolls Behaving Badly—
blue collar, paycheck-to-paycheck, up to here in credit card debt, lives either out of control or on the brink thereof. I don’t know why. Maybe people who write novels don’t come from that milieu. There’s Updike’s Rabbit, but that’s a northeast brahmin blue-collar pretender thing and to my mind counts not at all. Janet Evanovich comes to mind, maybe Sara Paretsky. All that aside, meet Carla Richards.
She has a middle-school boy, an ex-husband with whom she still “gets together” regularly, a waitress job, and a nearly-vanished dream to be an artist. The only thing going well in her life is son Jay-Jay. In her struggle to get out of debt, she begins buying old broken dolls and spends her night recreating them to market on an erotic website. Dolls that are anatomically correct right down to vaginas, anuses, and pubic hair. Never before, I think, has this plot line appeared on the page or on big screen or small.The dolls all have cute names, like the policeman pull-me-over-and-pull-it-out. Meanwhile. . .
Her real-estate-sales-sister has an affair, gets pregnant, leaves her husband and moves in with Carla. The 17 year old baby-sitter from the druggie parents three trailers down gets thrown out and moves in as well. Her colleague at work develops a strange romance with no kisses, and Carla gets involved with an anthropologist who makes her gifts of bones. In between, Carla maintains a communion with her dead Polish “gramma” and gives us her recipes–touch of magical realism there, you see, as well as a taste-bud connection. And that’s just the setup.
Obviously there is room for complications galore, and we get a flood of them. The best part of Dolls to my mind is Carla’s voice. It’s the voice of a woman whose dreams seem broken, whose life seems out of control, but who maintains a basic optimism throughout. She takes on burdens that don’t really belong to her, helps solve problems that aren’t hers, but she never loses her sense of humor and never gets bitter about those who exploit her. In the end, that pays off big time, but you’ll have to read the book to find out how. I’m not going to spoil your fun by revealing it here.
And then there’s Alaska, almost a character in itself with the weather, the moose, et al. It’s a great setting. You ought to go to http://www.writerworking.net/want-wild-try-alaska-and-dolls-behaving-badly/ for Ritchie’s trenchant comments on what it’s like to live and write there. A terrific piece.
What drags the book down for me is that it is sometimes as out of control as Carla’s life. There’s so much going on it loses focus. We get deep into someone’s moods at times when the action is what matters. For example, in the matter of the sister’s aborted abortion when she then disappears from the scene for quite a while, just when she’s in the worst spot and, in literary terms, needs our sympathy and attention.
All in all, though, Dolls is an absorbing and joyous read, with some deep exploration of moral issues such as abortion–not from a government-legalistic point of view, but from the personal female angle of the conflicts and consequences. It’s a life-and-art-affirming read, and, believe me, memorable.