Penny's Veuve-Clicquot swigging, mirror-gazing mother called Penny "pretty Penny" all her childhood, and Penny believed it. One day, not long after her mother's death, Penny looked in one of the many mirrors adorning the walls of their tony penthouse apartment and realized - to great surprise and greater dismay - she isn't at all pretty. The discovery is a terrific disappointment, and now not-pretty Penny is not only plain Penny, she is all alone in the world. Penny gets a job of sorts singing in a bar where she meets Guy, a rather pretty lexicographer. Their heady infatuation is fueled by a love of words:
" 'I love insourcing,' he said - and her heart fluttered- her heart became a bromidic, beating bird because, dear God, he'd just made a declaration. He loved insourcing. ('It's so efficient!') Loved it....They'd both been susceptible. Because if a word as antiseptic as insourcing could induce true love in him, set even her own unexpectant heart aflutter, who knew what warmer words would do? Who knew what destruction words like dear or lover or kitten or darling might wreak?"Who knew, indeed? Guy begins to call Penny by a series of silly, diminutive pet names - tolerable, until Guy is assigned to research the etymology of an abhorrent racial epithet. In a bizarre meeting of scholarly zeal and pet-name play gone awry, Guy begins to refer to Penny as "slave," and here the story takes a highly uncomfortable turn for both Penny and the reader. The initial lightness of the novella makes this development startling, for we watch the magic dispelled before our eyes. Penny suddenly sees the not-pretty truths of her life, as well as her complicity in them - her not-beauty, her not-so-friendly best friend, the terrible nickname she can't escape. Penny's falsely constructed world collapses around her, and it's hard not to feel a little compassion.
There was much I loved about Madeline McDonnell's Penny, n. (Rescue Press, 2013), starting with the book's exquisite design and continuing with McDonnell's writing which is, by and large, playful yet pointed, funny yet tragic. I adored the overall humor of Penny, and the spectacle of Penny, and the fascinating details of Penny's life. I struggled, though, with the use of the epithet and references to slavery in Penny and Guy's relationship. In a story about the power of words, one understands this discomfort to be intentional - we cannot be meant to approve of the couple's game; our distaste for their behavior is part and parcel of the experience of the book. Even so, for me, it made reading challenging rather than enjoyable: I winced every time Guy uttered a derogatory word, or the clueless pair adopted offensive stereotypes or mimicry in their play or banter, for example "Every once in a while she'd try again, drag her heels along the dusty floor, sing field songs. (Lord, I keep so busy servin'!)."
That Penny and Guy are fairly privileged and educated (if self-absorbed) young adults makes their transgressions especially provocative, for they aren't archetypical characters from a distant, less evolved historical time and place - they're more like people you might know. They should know better, and yet they carry on, trapped in an insularity of their own creation. When Penny refutes Guy's feeble protest that these are "just words" with "[c]all her slave, and she turned to one," we must take her words with a grain of salt. She is no slave, of course - it would be outrageous to suggest that Penny's relationship with an oblivious boyfriend who won't clean up his cereal bowl could even remotely be construed as slavery - but as she navigates the territory between "just" words and those that wield irreparable damage, we recognize that she is stuck in her own peculiar way. How did Penny really get to this seemingly inescapable place? What are the right words for her predicament?
I've sat with this for a while, hoping to find the right words for this review, revising and revisiting, and yet still not completely sure where to land. McDonnell is a remarkably talented writer (and, notably, a real-life lexicographer), and I loved the opening and close of the novella. While I didn't have much appetite for the charged words that drive the heart of the story, it did leave me considering how profoundly words shape our understanding of ourselves and others - we are well advised to choose them carefully.
My thanks to Rescue Press for a complimentary review copy of Penny, n.