Sophie Applebaum’s Wonder Spot satisfies the recycled air of MSP to LAX

By Gesse Stark-Smith

On an airplane you want to read a book that will totally absorb your attention. It can’t strain your mind too much—you haven’t much mind to strain when you’re at 35,000 feet—but it has to be well written enough to keep you engaged, fighting off the distractions of the child screaming in the back or that pesky turbulence.
The Wonder Spot by Melissa Bank is just such a book. If you called it “chick-lit” you wouldn’t be far off the mark, but you’d also be dismissing something valuable in a snotty way. The book may chart the coming of age of a young woman, Sophie Applebaum, who starts at thirteen and ends somewhere marooned in her mid-thirties. It may focus on this woman’s familial and (especially) romantic relationships. But it does all this in a sharply observed, wit-spiked fashion that is highly readable.

The book straddles the line between the short story form of Bank’s earlier work, The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing, and the novel. Each section tells a particular story, dealing with a particular theme over a particular time period, but they all feature Sophie, and her bright narration gives the piece its continuity. It’s like a novel with all the boring filler pieces cut out, so you get to jump from shiny anecdote to shiny anecdote.

The joy in the book comes from the moments when Bank gets it just right, when she brings to the forefront some heretofore ineffable concept which deep down you’ve always felt, too. These moments are genuine and in turn both moving and amusing. Sharp insights pop up throughout the book whether in Sophie’s interactions with her once mean Grandmother who’s turned sweet in her old age, her flirtations with various inappropriate men or her general search for meaning amidst the confusion of her life.
All of these subjects have been written about before, but Bank saves them from looming triteness by balancing the specific with the universal. Sophie is an every-woman but she has her own unique quirks, problems and quirky problems.

Every now and then Bank loses confidence in her divine skills of subtlety—without which none of those original revealing observations would be possible—and overstates her case. This lean towards convention is frustrating. For example we don’t need “Danger Will Robinson” references explained to us and although Bank perfectly describes the feeling of having your crush give you a book of poetry, does it have to be Billy Collins poetry? Ignore me, I’m just being pretentious. But really, Billy Collins? Way to pick the only contemporary poet with which anybody is familiar.

In the spirit of conventionality I’ll declare The Wonder Spot “a fun read.” But, it really is a fun read. Its characters will pull you in and once or twice you’ll have to catch your breath or laugh out loud at a smoothly crafted insight. What more could you ask for in a plane book? Nothing.

So, I’ve been writing book reviews in the Mac Weekly about every other week. Every time I sit down to do it I wish that at the beginning I’d included some little statement of purpose type of thing.
Such as: I’m going to write some book reviews. They will not be exclusively of recently released books because there is a lot out there to read that isn’t brand new (and who wants to buy things in hardcover). However, for the most part I will focus on books written within the last ten years or so because those are the books I like best and I think that modern fiction is a genre some what neglected in, say, college curricula. The logic of which books I review is mainly defined by that which comes to my attention and seems interesting (I am open to recommendations). The relevancy of this endeavor is affirmed by nothing more than the continued importance of creative writing as a truth revealing/exploring device and an urge to justify reading “non-school books.”

The Wonder Spot
By Melissa Bank
336 pages
Penguin U.S.A.