- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 2, 2006

RISE AND SHINE: A NOVEL

By Anna Quindlen

Random House, $24.95, 269 pages,

REVIEWED BY JOHN GREENYA

In all of Anna Quindlen’s novels, family is front and center. It’s also rear and center, stage left and right, and up, down, over and under. Family, like the god of Ms. Quindlen’s Irish forebears, is everywhere.

In “Object Lessons,” her first novel, a 12-year-old girl has to deal with the death of her grandfather; in her second, “One True Thing,” a woman struggles to adjust to the death of her mother. In number three, “Black and Blue,” a marriage is rent by the husband’s physical abuse of his wife, and in her fourth, “Blessings,” a baby is left on the doorstep of a rich woman’s estate.

“Rise and Shine,” Ms. Quindlen’s latest, is no less family-centered. Indeed, as far as both plot and characterization are concerned, familial relationships are the glue that holds the center together, and the question is whether there’s enough glue to keep this family from exploding during times of crises.

Meghan and Bridget Fitzmaurice may be siblings, but Meghan, older by six years, is the alpha female and Bridget the subservient sister. After a car crash took both parents when the girls were still in grammar school, the already-close pair grew up to become even closer.

But they also grew up to become very different. Meghan is world-famous. The sole host of “Rise and Shine,” the nation’s premier AM talk show, she interviews kings and commoners, not to mention each incumbent president, but there’s nothing light and fluffy about her approach or her intellect. Think a leaner, meaner Barbara Walters, or a domesticated, glammed-up Christiane Amanpour.

She’s married to the boy-next-door who conveniently grew up to become a brilliant financial type; they have a near perfect teenage son and a New York apartment — and life — to die for.

And then there’s Bridget. “Bridge,” who narrates the novel, is a harried social worker (they probably all are in New York City), dates a tough street cop who became the department’s media spokesperson, and they both have tiny apartments that will never grace the pages of a design magazine.

Meghan is Jackie Kennedy thin; Bridget is … not. Meghan knows all the right things to do, or not do, socially: “… flowers, Bridge? I couldn’t believe you brought flowers to a dinner party. That’s the worst. With everything else you have to do when people are showing up, you have to stop and find a vase, and cut the stems, and then find a place for them…”

Bridget, no shrinking violet, replies, “How is it possible than you can make bringing someone flowers sound like the Stations of the Cross?” But Meghan, who always has the last word, cuts her off with, “Just bring wine. Even if they don’t want to use it they can put it away for cocktail parties. Or wait and send an orchid plant the next day. I don’t know why, but every damn living room on the East Side has to have an orchid plant. I think they’re creepy, like big white bugs. They don’t look like flowers at all.”

Ms. Quindlen, who when she isn’t writing books is a back-page columnist for Newsweek, makes crystal clear in the opening pages that Meghan Fitzmaurice is on top of world, and justly so, but then, as the punch line of an old dirty-but-funny joke has it, she makes “one little mistake.”

At the end of an interview with a pretentious bore of a celebrity who has dumped his wife of 18 years for the young woman who is carrying their surrogate twins, Meghan, thinking the audio is off, utters two words that perfectly, if obscenely, capsulize her negative opinion of the man. Thus begins the Fall from Olympus. And then we learn that the night before she inadvertently (?) trashed the celeb-who-left-his-loyal-wife, Meghan learned she had a similar problem. Fall from Olympus accelerates.

Social worker Bridget is seldom able to watch her sister’s show, and doesn’t learn of the faux pas for several days, by which time Meghan, having been suspended by the network, is nowhere to be found. That brings us to page 57 of this 269 page novel, and, the conflict (Where is she? Will she return? Should she return?) having been established, the rest of book is devoted to the resolution, with ever-loyal sister Bridget leading the charge.

In a college commencement speech this past June, Anna Quindlen told the graduates, “Be not afraid. It’s an old and honorable directive [and] really the secret of life. As C.S. Lewis once wrote, ‘Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.’ So, Class of 2006, fear not.”

The wisdom of that advice is exemplified by both Fitzmaurice sisters as they work their individual and familial ways through the rest of the action. And there is a lot of action in the last 200-plus pages of “Rise and Shine.” I will not, however, spoil the book for you by revealing any more of the plot turns. (Don’t you hate it when reviewers do that? I’m still mad at the TV reviewer who spilled the beans about when Ken Jennings record “Jeopardy” run would end!)

Ms. Quindlen moves all the action along quite nicely, but I must confess to something less than total admiration for her ability to create believable characters. Meghan is too clued in, and her kid sister too clueless. And Meghan’s child, Leo, is simply too good to be true.

But these are not fatal problems, because the author is such a sharp social observer that the book can easily be enjoyed on that level alone. For example, she describes upward mobility, but on Bridget’s level, not that of her wealthy sister:

“I moved from a studio to a bigger studio to a small one-bedroom to a one-bedroom with a window in the kitchen, that window will be presented by brokers to apartment supplicants as though it were a fresco by Michelangelo. As, by Manhattan standards, it is.”

Her satire is deft, but seldom mean. The man who caused Meghan’s inadvertent obscenity is “… one of the crunch-granola child-men who had joined the billionaire ranks with the rise of the California computer culture. His favorite word was dude, his hair was never cut, and he was worth roughly five billion if you counted his stake in an arena football team he’d named the Live Wires.

“Every year at the stockholders’ meeting he sang a Dylan song to the assembled, and he had once done the final leg of the Ironman triathlon naked, allegedly because of a chafing problem.”

Meghan’s fall from grace and what she does about, or because of, it provides the central question of the novel — is celebrity in 21st-century America worth the price that must inevitably be paid? Which is more important, more real, fame or family?

As the novel rounds the last turn and heads for home, Meghan tells Bridget, “But sometimes at night I’d sit in the kitchen of that [magnificent] apartment and I’d be so lonely and I’d think, what happened? It’s not that it’s a bad life; it’s just so not real. The apartment, the cars, the speeches, the lunches, the show — none of it’s real. Three real things: Evan, Leo, you …” (Excuse me, I need a Kleenex.)

But that leaves 80-some pages for the author to resolve the conflict. I’d tell you what happens, but, as I mentioned earlier, and, to quote an American President, that would be wrong. Read “Rise and Shine.” It’ll make you a better person. Like Bridget.

John Greenya is a Washington writer.

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