“A Change of Luck” is a madly American novel, a modern account of fragmentation and disaster, laced unaccountably with glistening threads of stubborn hope and euphoria.
It’s on the same wave length as Gregg Easterbrook’s “This Magic Moment” and Carol Hill’s “The Eleven Million Mile High Dancer.” Author Julia Markus works off the theory that this may look like a random universe, but there’s a cosmic dance going on somewhere, if we can just get in step with it.
“A Change of Luck” takes the position that even though the world we live in now is entirely different from the one we were led to expect, it’s perfect on its own terms. If we can allow ourselves to change (to fit this new and crazy world), we’re in for electrical jolts of immense surprise and joy.
Elaine Netherlands is a novelist; her first book has just been bought for a big advance, and she’s happy about it. On the other hand, there is sadness in her life. She’s divorced from Larry, who’s made a good living and a name for himself by photographing the world’s most beautiful women.
Elaine got bored, fell out of love, something like that. But the real loss from her divorce has come from an unexpected source: Her stepdaughter, Nola, is the one Elaine really misses, and Nola hasn’t spoken to her in three years.
Now, at the beginning of the novel, without apologies, Nola drops by. She’s changed her name to Asia. She wants to quit school, she says. She doesn’t want to finish college. She wants her ex-stepmother to give her $3,000 so she can buy a van and drive to California to be a rock musician.
The thing is, Elaine finds out at one of those marginal concerts where her stepdaughter is opening for another act, that Nola really is good--a tremendous girl-rocker.
But to get involved in that family again? To go against the wishes of her womanizing ex-husband? Elaine can’t help but remember: Nola didn’t even invite her to her high school graduation. Elaine loved Nola (how embarrassing and weird), but Nola referred to her as “your everyday wicked stepmother.”
Elaine, now, thinks she’s past all that. She has money (and she reads Money magazine!). She puts a down payment on a partially built townhouse. She elicits jealousy from a woman friend of hers who’s spent her own life raising children and catering to a husband who’s no more than a second-rate artist. Elaine is in mid-life, at some pivotal center, where every step counts. She’s beautiful, happy, self-sufficient, and in for surprises.
While buying the townhouse, she strikes up a conversation with a gorgeous, faintly sinister construction worker/contractor named Mario. (Her friends and family disdain him because of his lack of education, but he has a deeper flaw than that.)
And while meeting her ex-husband to discuss the thorny problem of his stubborn daughter and the $3,000 and the van, Elaine sees that he’s wearing a wig. That’s the last straw! The vain, silly man! But her ex-husband is dying of cancer and doesn’t want anyone to know, especially his daughter. Thus, the silly wig.
In this novel, Markus manages the most extraordinary sense of life unfolding the way it does in life (not for dramatic effect). Elaine learns that her new lover, Mario, has been in real trouble. His best friend on the job, a handsome French Canadian (named Wig), is in even more trouble.
Elaine and Mario end an evening of terrific lovemaking by smoking a couple of joints, but outside on the streets, Mario and Wig make a habit of getting into crack and speed and whatever other hard drug they can get their hands on.
Oddly enough, it’s Nola, whose own real mother was an alcoholic, who turns Elaine on to a Twelve Step Group, where she begins--however marginally--to “get” what’s happening. Her publisher totally stiffs her when her book comes out. (That’s life, too.) Her married friend accuses her of selfishness. Her ex-husband dies; an AIDS sermon is read over him by mistake.
What a world, what a world. Nola keeps writing songs about it. And Elaine keeps reading Money magazine. And love is going to redeem most of these people--the courageous ones, the bouncy, lively ones. Because even within the world we perceive as nightmare, life is interesting beyond words. And golden in unexpected places. This is an amazingly good story about the way we live now.
Next: John Wilkes reviews “The Ascent of Mind: Ice Age Climates and the Evolution of Intelligence” by William H. Calvin (Bantam Books).