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More pancake than souffle

Donna Rifkind writes about books for a number of publications, including the Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun.

Martha McKENNA has just started a business offering dating advice to single men in Manhattan. Her best friend, Lucy Stone, is a Columbia University biologist specializing in sexual selection. Unmarried and in their mid-30s, both women spend a lot of time deploring the lack of desirable men in the city. Martha is tired of dating “momma’s boys, narcissists, chauvinists, men obsessed with their last girlfriends, men obsessed with their last girlfriend’s new boyfriend, needy guys, flirts, gropers, girly boys.” Meanwhile, Lucy is disappointed in her boyfriend Adam, who can’t manage to finish his economics dissertation or jump-start a car. What’s a girl to do?

Thus Adrienne Brodeur whisks together the plot for her first novel, a neat little cupcake of a book. First rule of chick lit: Don’t stop talking about the dearth of marriageable men. Second rule: Set out in your Manolo Blahniks to fix the problem. And so Lucy and Martha concoct a plan, with the help of Lucy’s college pal Cooper Tuckington, to establish a “man camp” on Cooper’s West Virginia dairy farm. Here, Cooper will tutor his fellow males in “everything from confidence to carpentry to chivalry. And those are just the Cs.”

In a scheme so crazy it just might work, Lucy and Martha round up a bunch of New York City sophisticates -- a news producer, an advertising executive, a businessman, a historian, a children’s book editor and Adam, Lucy’s economist boyfriend -- and set them loose on the farm to practice the arts of milking cows and mending fences.

It isn’t long before these Kashi-eating, cashmere-wearing, Blackberry-addicted girlie men are tucking enthusiastically into super-sized breakfasts and taking target practice. And dang it if they don’t end up using their city slicker skills to rescue Cooper when the farm is threatened with foreclosure. Nor is it likely to surprise anyone when know-it-alls Lucy and Martha, on hand to witness these transformations, end up learning a few important life-and-love lessons themselves.

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In its tidy way, “Man Camp” dutifully combines every ingredient in the chick-lit formula, from its heroines’ designer underwear to their happily-ever-after humility at novel’s end. Brodeur, the founding editor of the literary magazine Zoetrope: All-Story, knows a thing or two about these conventions, having published a piece of short fiction by Melissa Bank in 1998 that Bank later expanded into the book “The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing,” considered by many to be the primordial text of the genre in America. With its zippy, high-concept plot and its author’s sure-fire credentials, “Man Camp” seems guaranteed for success. Yet Brodeur, who begins her book with Freud’s famous question, “What does a woman want?” manages to inspire in readers an even more pressing question: Why isn’t this novel more entertaining?

The blame can’t be placed on the glitter-dusted shoulders of chick lit itself. There are no good or bad genres, only good or bad books; the truth is that this author, perhaps hoping that the conventions are by now so familiar that they’ll do most of the work for her, has not managed to develop the concept of “Man Camp” into a satisfying novel. Her male characters are little more than point-and-shoot stereotypes. Her dialogue (“What’s up, dater?”) is atrocious. She offers broadly comic situations but little humor. And she proves herself the victim of a blithe New York provincialism, in which she grossly underestimates her audience’s sophistication. At one point she needlessly explains what a metrosexual is, and at others suggests that only in Manhattan can one order dial-up sushi or other luxuries.

Because comic novels are easy to read, it’s often assumed that they are equally easy to write. In fact, the necessary elements -- distinctive voice, light touch, witty dialogue -- are extremely difficult to capture. So one is inclined to forgive Brodeur for sketching out the blueprints of a novel instead of producing a more fully imagined, funnier book. Writing, like dating, builds character. *


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