My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Full disclosure: I wasn't expecting much of Steve Martin. I haven't read Shopgirl, and I think I was secretly expecting something lowbrow and full of the outlandish masquerading as the comic, like The Jerk in novel form. But from the moment I opened to the first page, I was pleasantly surprised:
I am tired, so very tired of thinking about Lacey Yeager, yet I worry that unless I write her story down, and see it bound and tidy on my bookshelf, I will be unable to ever write about anything else.That first sentence (okay, aside from the unnecessarily split infinitive) is practically pitch perfect. It sets forth the conceit of the book, a faux roman à clef, and gives you a glimpse of the relationship between the subject and the narrator: she is someone who has left an indelible imprint on his life, and writing this story is his attempt to move on.
I will tell you her story from my own recollections . . . [but if] you occasionally wonder how I know about some of the events I describe in this book, I don't. I have found that -- just as in real life -- imagination sometimes has to stand in for experience.I love how this sentence forgives the narrator for knowing too much. A curious strength of this book is the distance of the narrator from the story. For much of it he is not directly involved, and so the narrative is more third-person than first-person, despite the directed-at-the-reader exposition I've quoted above. The wonderful thing about this is that it imitates, or perhaps even symbolizes, his relationship with Lacey: she is obviously important to him (he's writing her story, for God's sake), but he is also aware that he is not terribly important to her, so too many first-person sentences would exaggerate his significance to her story.
I also love this book for what it's not. It's not pretentious, despite the gorgeous color reproductions of artwork that are scattered throughout, and some almost tongue-in-cheek use of art-world argot. It isn't overly plotted, either; the story unfolds in a natural, lifelike way, by which I mean that it's not always exciting or dramatic, but there is almost always something worth observing. It doesn't try too hard to be profound, and despite raising a few questions of ethics I'm not sure there's any big moral to take away, just food for thought. (Or maybe not so much "food" as hors d'oeuvres: small, perfect bites that fill you up without your realizing it.)
And I love, love the quiet, uncertain-but-hopeful note on which it ends. The last paragraph, like the opening sentence, is absolutely pitch perfect.