"I think of James Dean, dead; I think of the subway running in my basement walls and the homeless men asking me for spare change...I think about my writing, how a fine line is drawn between a sense of self-importance and an awareness of insignificance. I think about art and love and the dogs in Washington Square Park. I'm torn up and put back together again. I think of New York City, of all it is to me: a finger against my chest, an allegation. I have cast sad, sad eyes on this small, small island and called it deadly."
There was always something that bothered me about the Manolo-Blahnik sporting, ever-chic and ever-beautiful, New-York City dwelling "Sex and the City" columnist Carrie Bradshaw. Aside from the obvious life/income anomalies made possible only in tv world (who could afford the lunches out, the endless cocktails, the expensive shoes, the good neighborhood?), something about Carrie's perfection - or maybe, rather, her perfectly designed imperfection - drove me crazy.
Enter Sybil Weatherfield - also a single thirty-ish woman in "the" City, also a columnist - Abcess, Sybil's popular column for the edgy publication New York Shock, also ponders matters of New York and of the heart - but that's where the similarities end. In Jennifer Spiegel's Love Slave (Unbridled Books, 2012) Sybil is the anti-Carrie: Sybil is ambivalent, lonely, angsty, body-issue ridden, city-worn yet funny, armed with the requisite defensiveness, sarcasm and a hint of irony. Sybil isn't hoarding trunk sale finds or a closet full of shoes, instead she's temping to make the rent and scouring corporate kitchens and conference rooms for leftover doughnuts to supplement her meager diet of pasta and tuna fish. Sybil's got a "decent" boyfriend who is amused by her bohemian edge and a best friend of sorts who's moving to Guatemala, but despite her many years in New York, Sybil doesn't have any real commitments. She doesn't even have a cat.
But then Sybil meets Rob, a singer in an up-and-coming rock band, and everything is called into question. Will she find true love? Will she ever have anything in her life that isn't temporary? Spiegel takes us on a moody and introspective journey, peppered with nostalgic references and vibrant descriptions of life in mid-nineties New York City. Sybil isn't an immediately lovable character - she's indecisive and self-centered, among other things - in a lot of ways, she's a mess. But I found I really liked her and her story. Sybil grew on me quickly and was surprised at how hard I rooted for her in the end. Beyond Sybil's first-hand tale, we also read her columns, and even better, the letters Sybil receives in reply. Readers give us (and Sybil) a witty and pointed reality check, a little outside perspective on Sybil's life and the part of her she shares in her column. I found Love Slave to be smart and edgy and thoroughly engaging - my intended quick peek at the first chapter quickly became a gobbling up of the whole novel. Recommended for literary fiction fans who like their characters and stories the way they like their cities: gritty and complicated.
Jennifer Spiegel is also the author of The Freak Chronicles, a recent short story collection from Dzanc Books. You can listen/watch her talk in depth about both books on Books & Company.
My thanks to the author and Unbridled Books for a complimentary review copy of Love Slave.