A book that's fun but flawed
There's a very touching back story to this book: the author, Jane Lotter, was a very successful humorist writing for the Seattle Sun and winning awards for doing it. Critical acclaim aside, she could not find a publisher for her only novel, The Bette Davis Club, and so decided to take matters into her own hands and self-publish. Then she passed away, and only after that did Lake Union Publishing come forward with interest in the book. Ms. Lotter never lived to see her book widely distributed, but it's success is a testament to her wit and writing.
Margo Just is a fifty-something woman who, while perhaps not the hero of her own story, is certainly the likeable-but-flawed protagonist of it. And this is really something because in the history of literature we almost never see a woman over 35 who is not the mother, mother in-law, step-mother, grandmother, other quirky but secretly wise relative, bitch boss, foreign-born housemaid, life-altering nanny, cougar mistress, or other such similar accessory to the youthful, vibrant (often male) protagonist. To have a story be about a woman in her middle stages of life is relatively unheard of and the first thing that drew me to this book.
Our protagonist has arrived at her half-sister's daughter's wedding only to discover the bride has successfully pulled off a mysterious disappearing act. Despite her extended family being one of considerable wealth, Margo has been struggling financially for, well, her entire life. Through a series of truly contrived circumstances which include an audacious amount of money, she finds herself in a car with the deserted groom on a journey to locate the fleeing-but-irresistible bride. If this sounds like the circumstances of a movie plot rather than someone's life, that's not unintentional. Margo adores the cinema of classic Hollywood and her extended family is deeply embedded in the corporate money-making schemes of today's movie industry. The style of the book parallels the overt plots we often see on the silver screen and, like the comedic misadventures we fancy on our televisions, this book is an enjoyable if sometimes bumpy ride.
Margo Just is difficult. Not as a personality trait, but as a character. She is 50-something, single and floundering and this particular combination make her both wonderful and problematic. As mentioned above, we don't often get to see middle-aged women in the protagonist role and Ms. Lotter gives us someone who is at times compassionate, contemplative, and the victim of some really rough luck; but, at times is also judgmentally cruel, afraid and dependent. To put it simply, I went through waves of being delighted and disappointed by this character. While she is the center of her own story, there are few times that I felt she was steering it. Between her father, her ex-lover and her burgeoning friendship with the jilted groom who is literally driving the car, the reader is left uncertain of how often Margo has ever been in the driver's seat of her own life.
The humor is quick and sharp. The cast of characters are wildly entertaining in their heightened dramatics. The story is heart-warming and the moments of genuine character connection fulfilling. The Bette Davis Club, like it's main character, is entertaining if a bit flawed. As we begin to gently approach the warmer seasons, you'll enjoy this more as a sunny read on the beach rather than a subject of feminist discourse.
by Jane Lotter