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The Center of Things Hardcover – July 17, 2001

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

It takes guts for a debut novelist to mix such disparate subjects as abstruse science, philosophy, movies and the single life in New York City, but McPhee takes the risk with brio and acquits herself with ‚lan. Her neurotic but appealing heroine, Marie Brown, is, at 39, still finding herself, in chronically self-deprecating fashion. She's "too tall, too plain," yearning to be married, fascinated by physics and ambivalent about her job as a tabloid journalist. It is at a science library in Manhattan that she meets fellow reader Marco Trentadue, self-described "freelance intellectual," who engages her in the sort of brainy banter that she once enjoyed with her estranged brother, Michael. Meanwhile, Marie is assigned to write the obituary of Nora Mars, legendary and scandalous film star, and finds herself fascinated by Nora's third husband, sexy and alcoholic singer Rex. The reasons for Marie's stalled career, muddled romantic opportunities and family troubles gradually become clear in a quixotically quirky story line that calls into play several different secret betrayals and reconciliations. McPhee's style is lean and frisky, and her novel is teasing, funny and intriguing. While the regular interpolation of scientific theory may not be to everyone's taste, and the cliffhanging chapter endings sometimes seem contrived, readers should enjoy McPhee's ability to integrate scientific speculation with the stuff of daily life. Indeed, as Marie begins to get insights into the directions her future will take, one starts to read with a smile, appreciating the skill with which McPhee creates a satisfying romantic glow. (July)Forecast: One of the daughters of writer John McPhee, Jenny McPhee has previously published short stories, translated books from the Italian and collaborated with her sisters Martha and Laura on Girls. While the McPhee name may be the initial drawing card here, the novel's offbeat charm will distinguish Jenny McPhee as an accomplished writer with her own distinctive style.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

McPhee is a talented, graceful, and often sardonic writer who frequently reviews for the New York Times Book Review and has now written her first novel. Her protagonist is certainly winning: Marie's first love is the history and philosophy of science, but she writes for a tabloid newspaper and has from childhood been entranced by noir film stars. A perfect blend of the three would have been irresistible (consider how Tom Stoppard combined science, literature, and romance in Arcadia), but there was a bit too much quantum mechanics for this reader (although the scientifically sophisticated may find this attractive). Marie's particular obsession is Nora Mars, a five-times-married and now-dying diva. Liberally sprinkled throughout are quotes from her fictitious films (e.g., "Try everything once, then live to regret it." Nora Mars, Dark Blue, 1965). Nora's complicated family relations with sister, son, and all those husbands are a major, often moving, part of the plot. Marie, with her thwarted lusts, many anxieties, and estranged brother, comes alive on the page. To a lesser extent, so does Marco, a self-described "freelance intellectual" and eccentric whom Marie repeatedly encounters at the Science, Industry and Business Library of NYPL. John McPhee should be proud of his daughter. For all fiction collections with intelligent readers.
- Judith Kicinski, Sarah Lawrence Coll. Lib., Bronxville, NY
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday; 1st edition (July 17, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385500777
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385500777
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 0.9 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,835,011 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Mary Whipple HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on August 2, 2001
Format: Hardcover
In a novel that truly defies categorization, McPhee tells of Marie Brown, a 39-year-old New Yorker whose conscientious, part-time work on a never-quite-finished graduate school science paper brings her into contact with Marco Trentadue, a fellow habitué of the library and "freelance intellectual," in many ways her opposite. Professionally, Marie works, underappreciated, at a tabloid newspaper. When she volunteers to write the newspaper's not-yet-needed obituary for actress Nora Mars, Marie uncovers a secret so explosive that it could totally change her standing at the tabloid. The intrigue, Marie's emotional responses, her relationships with Marco and others, and the tabloid atmosphere all contribute to an involving plot which can stand completely on its own.

But McPhee is ambitious and fiendishly clever here, and the plot is only the tip of a huge and wonderful thematic iceberg. Every chapter bears the title of a major preoccupation of our lives--Time, Truth, Beauty, Love, Reality, Death, etc.--and in each we learn something about both Marie's life and the life of Nora Mars, relative to this thematic idea. At the same time, however, McPhee also introduces a principle of quantum physics into each chapter, explaining it in a way which suggests obvious parallels with the chapter's theme of Time, Truth, Beauty, Love, etc. She forces the reader to look at things from completely new and infinitely wider perspectives, playing with the reader's preconceived ideas about reality, drawing parallels between the behavior of subatomic particles and the behavior of people; and raising questions about the space/time "continuum," random behavior, multiple universes, and even consciousness itself as an evolutionary response.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 30, 2001
Format: Hardcover
My test of a novel is do I think of the characters-- wonder what they're doing-- when I'm not reading the book, and that was certainly the case with this novel. The author has created some really fascinating, eccentric yet completely appealing people. I liked them, wanted to know what was going to happen, and just basically found myself stealing moments to read the book as often as I could. This is a book you'll thoroughly enjoy and when completed will find yourself thinking, "darn! it's over. Wow, I hope she writes another one."
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Virginia Lore on October 6, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Marie Brown is a tabloid writer in search of the explosive story about a dying movie star idol. Marie Brown is a too-tall half-deaf woman who hasn't spoken with her brother Michael in fifteen years. And Marie Brown is an aficionado of quantum mechanics who has been writing her philosophy of science paper for over a decade. How Marie centers her uncentered life makes for interesting reading in Jenny McPhee's The Center of Things, a unique novel about anthropocentric applications of theoretical science.
The chapters are arranged by topic: time, truth, beauty, jealousy, etc. Movie quotes, scientific theories, Marie's conversations with Marco Trentadue, Freelance Intellectual, and the plot itself all serve to explore the topic. Throughout the book, Marie develops her career-breaking tabloid scandal. The juxtaposition of her shallow aim with the depth of her approach demonstrates the potential of popular culture to capture real human experience.
There are some weak spots in this book. In some places the story becomes subsumed by its devices. Readers with not much science background will need to take it slowly to understand large portions of Marie and Marco's dialogue. Readers with lots of science background may find the anthropomorphizing of theoretical physics preposterous rather than whimsical. And in some places Marie almost gets lost as the dialogue takes over, but those spots make for the most fascinating reading.
To say that this book is unusual doesn't quite do it justice. This is a book to linger over, and read tidbits of aloud. It is a wonderful postmodern novel.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on September 6, 2001
Format: Hardcover
A great book that works on many levels. It reads very quickly thanks to Mcphee's concise writing style and a rapidly unfolding plot. When you read it make Marie your focus - not Nora Mars. Marie is actually the more complex woman, even though at first glance you'll be brought in by the weird circumstances surrounding the movie star. Don't be put off by the science references - they are actually used much less than the reviews would lead you to believe. When they are used, they work quite well in tying together the big picture.
If you're looking for a light read (without sacrificing substance and intellect) you will enjoy this novel.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Elizabeth Hendry VINE VOICE on September 2, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Jenny McPhee's The Center of Things is a wonderfully unique, tightly written first person narrative about Marie Brown, a tabloid journalist tracking down the truth about the life of one of her obsessions--the movie star Nora Mars, who lays close to dying. Marie is trying to put together an obituary to end all obituaries about Nora, and as she goes about her research, she learns some interesting truths about Nora, about herself and her brother. The Center of Things is an engaging and intelligently written novel, full of witty observations and interesting characters. The story is clever and unique--I've never read anything quite like it. I really enjoyed this one.
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