“By the Numbers,” by Jen Lancaster

Jen Lancaster

Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl

The summer reading season is upon us; park-goers and beach-goers and vacation-goers and back-yard goers are relaxing with sun screen (we hope) and sun glasses and books and magazines.  Children will frolic.

So much tonic for the spirit these lovely warm days; more so when readers look for wit and humor as the perfect ingredient for a slow summer read.

One might dwell on this notion for a moment, the role of the comic, the social role of laughter, the expansive force of the two.  And the reason is that life does not always go according to plan.  Henri Bergson is on point here when he argues in his 1900 Laughter that the source of the comic is the presence of a certain sort of rigidity in life, even though the truth is that life is defined by perpetual movement, flexibility, and agility.  Comic situations occur where movement is not flexible.  Rigidity thus becomes ludicrous, an eccentric attitude: One should bet the farm on this, or the children’s college fund.

Consider for a moment Penny Sinclair, the first-person narrator in Jen Lancaster’s By the Numbers.  Penny is an actuary with a good head for business.

Consider, then, a day in the life of an actuary who evaluates and designs “creative” ways to reduce the likelihood of undesirable events by using “safe” numbers as opposed to, say, a crystal ball.

Why?  Well, because the future is uncertain and full of risk.  An actuary, a safeguarding brain for our personal lives, is also a professional, so to speak, with a combination of strong analytical skills, business knowledge, and an understanding of human behavior to manage the myriad complex risks facing all of us these days in our society.

To become an actuary there are tests, probability studies, mathematics, economics, and life “contingencies” exams: multiple choice and written answers based upon theoretical models.

Penny Sinclair is “aware,” for example, that 60% of spouses cheat and 50% of marriages end in divorce.  Knowing such reduces the sting a bit when the “contingency” happens to Penny; her husband cheats with a woman their daughter’s age, and hence the divorce.  The statistical and probabilistic model’s truthfulness can be assumed even if the model owns a certain severity.

So, where’s the humor, the comedy?

It’s Pascal who argued that the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.  The point seems to argue that we know the truth not only by reason but by the heart.  For Penny Sinclair, the poster child for applying her actuary logic to life, well, life happens and not according to her actuarial plan.

Is it painless?  Best to say that what happens to Penny is emotionally trying and becomes more complicated when her parents descend for a lengthy stay in the lovely old Victorian house she intends to sell as she downsizes for a condo in downtown Chicago (a move she hopes to achieve after her daughter’s non-traditional backyard wedding, which includes fetching and matching tattoos for the “ladies” in the bridal party).

Best, in other words, to think of the whole as a contemporary sitcom—the unexpected with the expected, the unusual with the usual, and the incongruity between societal norms and collections of misfits.

It’s situation comedy with Penny the sympathetic character and the surrounding characters upsetting her actuarial status quo.

How will the show end?  Let’s just say that, after a period of “meditation,” Penny comes to understand that the heart has its reasons about which actuarial reason knows nothing.

Life, after all, can be lived by the numbers only marginally.

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