Meghan Daum's first book, the essay collection My Misspent Youth
, was written with effortless humor and excoriating insight. This was a writer who made fun of everything, most especially herself. Humor and self-knowledge infuse her debut novel, The Quality of Life Report
. Fans of Daum's essays probably know that her unworkable, expensive New York lifestyle led her to move to the Midwest. Same goes for the fictional Lucinda Trout, a New York TV producer who, while on assignment, falls in love with the town of Prairie City. Daum, with typical acuity, is wise to her character's real motivations for moving to the country: she wants to be a better person, and believes the Midwest will do the trick: "This was, after all, serious country. The real heartland, the plains. It was Willa Cather-novel serious. It was Sissy Spacek-movie serious and documentary-film-about-poor-conditions-in-meat-packing-plants-serious." Lucinda soon discovers that she's not immune to the less-than-perfect aspects of Prairie City living, and acquires a boyfriend of questionable hygiene and judgement; a rambling, isolated farmhouse that looks like the set to a Sam Shepard movie but is impossible to heat; and a tanning-bed tan and a set of false nails that are the region's signature style. The plot of the novel unwinds rather messily, and Daum doesn't always seem in control of her material. But she never lets Lucinda off the hook, and that's the key to the book's success. Daum has given her heroine a voice that is prickly, a little ruthless, and lovably vulnerable all at once. We don't always respect Lucinda, but we're pretty sure we'd be friends with her. --Claire Dederer
From Publishers Weekly
Daum's winning first novel (after the 2000 essay collection My Misspent Youth) depicts the transformation of Lucinda Trout from a semisuccessful, 29-year-old New York City television morning-show reporter into a full-blown Midwesterner. She flees the big city (and her tiny apartment and domineering, illiterate boss) for wind-swept Prairie City, a smallish town full of affordable real estate somewhere in the flyover zone, promising to send back a series of TV segments dubbed "Quality of Life Reports," intended to demonstrate that wholesome, smalltown life still exists. But once she settles in, she finds all is not necessarily as expected in the heartland: the locals, though well-meaning, don't live up to the clich (nearly everyone has multiple children by multiple partners; a local lesbian singing duo calls itself Estrogen Therapy) and Lucinda manages to produce only a handful of dreadful dispatches. Instead of advancing her career, she surprises her cynical self by shacking up in a remote farmhouse with an irresponsible, faux-Sam Shepard type while helping to care for his three kids, and trying to make it through a long, cold winter with an inadequate car and little money. Though it sounds grim, Daum never lets it get maudlin, and Lucinda's determination to make everything work-the farm, the man, the kids, her career-makes for some brilliant flashes of comedy. By the end, Lucinda may not have found love, or necessarily a better life, but she does learn to relax a bit and take things as they come. Though the love story occupies center stage, this is not mere chick lit, and men will enjoy it, too. It is a confident first novel, full of wit and deft social criticism, often very funny and frequently wise. Daum is a rising star.
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