“The Best of Enemies,” by Jen Lancaster

Jen Lancaster

Jen Lancaster

Reviewed by Daniel Sundahl

I was at lunch one time with a group of students who were regaling me with the comedy antics of Seinfeld. I asked how many years the program had been on television and about favorite characters. It went from there.

I confessed having watched only a few episodes, reruns at that and usually in a hotel room while waiting to do something else on my schedule. Wasting time, in other words, hoping for a school of thought where there is no thought. It just gets dull.

Jen Lancaster is the author of seven memoirs and three previous novels. The Best of Enemies is her fourth novel.   It’s a book that easily became a summer “good read,” albeit uneven, especially in its rush to an ending whereby all loose ends are quickly, even if unrealistically, tied up.   As an author, she qualifies as a trendy “best seller.” “Good reads” are those pulp books that appear at seasonal moments like movies, blockbusters. Costco has an aisle length table-full.

For which there is a market.

The book owns preliminaries including a page with three epigrammatic quotes: one from Oscar Wilde, one from Benjamin Franklin, and one from Edward Dahlberg.

Let’s quibble for a moment:

One can place epigrams at the beginning of articles, books, essays and poems because the “author” thinks they belong there and add “authority.” Whatever universal truth the epigram holds, its contemplating nature, thus lends potential to what follows.

The quibbling problem is this, and I’m merely being suggestive: If one uses an epigram, well, that assumes familiarity with the epigram’s textual source. I once had a student, for example, an honors student, who began an important essay with a quote from Rousseau. When I asked the title of the source, and the context, the poor child was flummoxed. The source, of course, was Bartlett, the Familiar Quotations. The child had never read Rousseau.

One can go on but the point would be something like this: With this novel, the result is affected or a facile attempt to appear intellectually edgy. The Dahlberg quote can be found online at “Brainy Quote.” I doubt the author of The Best of Enemies is a devotee of Dahlberg—Wilde, perhaps, but Franklin is likely just a “Benjamin.”

What then passes for a “Prologue” concerns eleven pages of graduation announcements, hotel letters asking for damages, a wedding announcement, another letter for damages, and a web site posting. They are pages—one might call them a literary hybrid—meant to convey narrative and character exposition in a “sort of” experimental form. Their absence could have been a useful constraint.

The plot-line in The Best of Enemies is simple enough for the novel’s twenty-year time frame. In 1994, three young women come to know each other the beginning year of college at Whitney University: Jacqueline (“Jack”) Jordan, Katherine (“Kitty”) Kord, and Sarabeth (“Sars” or “Betsy”) Martin. The reader learns about these college years in the novel’s flashback sections beginning in chapter four, sixty or so pages into the book.

The first sixty pages thus introduce the reader to this cast of narcissists twenty years later with alternating first person chapters, first Kitty, then Jack, then Kitty again, then Jack but back in time to 1993 when Jack and “Sars” are poring over college housing brochures. Chapter five leaps forward to 2006 and Sarabeth’s wedding.

I scrambled the chapters and could tell no real difference in structural sequencing. A fragmented novel episodically lurches, but even if the fragments are loose each still should frame the narrative chapter-by-chapter. If such were the case here the novel would be more compelling. As it is, it’s a bit like an awkward dance routine.

And of course things come apart, the center cannot hold; Kitty and Jack, at first friends and then enemies who come back together to enable “Sars” to discover the truth about her conniving husband, Trip, who is either dead or has absconded with duffle bags of cash.

Starring whom? Sandra Bullock, perhaps, Ashley Judd, perhaps, and an unknown to play “Sars.” The movie might be less of a struggle since one would be less inclined to pull out a pen and mark exclamation points and other hodgepodges of exaggerations; what passes for irony and wit becomes formulaic at best, stunts and gimmicks at worst, and compounded sarcasms. The book is no templar of language making the reader quiver with joy at the wonderful noises the English language can offer. There is neither deep shine to the style nor words made bright in their depths. If pop culture can be recycled, however, the result still will be the same clever quips, a stale superior snotty sarcasm. A narrative line such as “Urge to puke rising” has some inherent limitations unless language’s contemporary referentially is the equal of a “valley girl’s” attempt to find words when she knows poetry’s powers have begun to fail. Hard to leach meaning from such phrases as “Abso-flipping-utely.”

It’s likely to become a favorite book for many who wish to read books that don’t ask serious questions or embody pop culture’s sarcastic view of life. Go forth and be proud. But there is no school of thought here because there is no thought. A séance interview with Joan Rivers might be revealing. Who, though, at the end here will believe this hollow noise, utterly empty? Mayhaps it’s a symbol of our culture’s labyrinth of blurbs….

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