marginalia || Shopgirl, by Steve Martin

I thought I wouldn’t finish reading Shopgirl by Steve Martin this soon, but there’s nothing like a procrastinator’s heart coupled with a pile of (school) required reading to get you through a book, fast. More importantly, this book charmed my socks off. I liked it. A lot. And that’s amazing because I thought I wouldn’t.

So. This is what the blurb tells us, because we don’t want to undergo the excruciating experience of me trying to write a summary:

One of our country’s most acclaimed and beloved entertainers, Steve Martin has written a novella that is unexpectedly perceptive about relationships and life. Martin is profoundly wise when it comes to the inner workings of the human heart.

Mirabelle is the “shopgirl” of the title, a young woman, beautiful in a wallflowerish kind of way, who works behind the glove counter at Neiman Marcus “selling things that nobody buys anymore…”

Slightly lost, slightly off-kilter, very shy, Mirabelle charms because of all that she is not: not glamorous, not aggressive, not self-aggrandizing. Still there is something about her that is irresistible.

Mirabelle captures the attention of Ray Porter, a wealthy businessman almost twice her age. As they tentatively embark on a relationship, they both struggle to decipher the language of love — with consequences that are both comic and heartbreaking. Filled with the kind of witty, discerning observations that have brought Steve Martin critical success, Shopgirl is a work of disarming tenderness.

I found this on a book-digging stint in BookSale last Saturday. That is, I gave in and bought it. I admit to being iffy about it because, well, it was Steve Martin. I’d suspected that this was a vanity-ish kind of book, the Big Celebrity playing at being Published Author. But I found that Steve Martin (the Steve Martin I don’t even find that funny, hehe) could write, and he could write well. I was surprised. By the seventh page, I knew I could settle comfortably with this book. Halfway through, the Post-It flags I’d stuck to the passages I found particularly–for lack of a better word–cool, well, it was a fiesta.

His prose is straightforward, almost plain-spoken. With passages like:

To Mirabelle, the idea of being an object of obsession is alluring and presents a powerful love. She fails to understand, however, that men become obsessive over beautiful women because they want no one else to have them, but they fall in love with women like Mirabelle because they want a certain, specific part of them. (p.26)

He knows that he loves her, but he cannot figure out in what way. (p.119)

His language, reading this book, brought to my attention yet another bewildering facet of the reading experience. I can imagine workshop panelists and mentors all over saying, “Show, don’t tell”–I mean, hell, it’s a cliche, that advice against cliches, and I know I’ve used it myself over the years. But, lately, strangely, I am liking it. I am liking this “I am telling you, Reader, what’s what.” I felt the same thing, reading The Fiction Class by Susan Breen. It wasn’t annoying, it didn’t feel lazy. There are writers who manage to imbue the simplest of sentences with a fluid, charming lyricism. And I daresay Steve Martin is one of them.

I am partial to Mirabelle, shy and flawed Mirabelle, depressed Mirabelle. Depression is a tricky thing to talk about (my hatred of Prozac Nation shall be saved for another day), and I like to think I know something about this, because I suffer from it.

Locked in the darkness of her car, with the wipers set on periodic, she feels uneasy. The night scares her. Then the uneasiness gives way to a momentary and frightening levitation of her mind above her body. She can feel her spirit disconnect from her corporeal self, and her heart starts racing. She had felt its calling card months later, this unwelcome visitor in her body, who seemed to fly through her and then was gone. This time it is stronger than before, and it stays longer. It is as though her body is held down by weights and her mind is being methodically disassembled. (p.81)

She closes her eyes, and the depression helps her sleep. Sleep, however, is not relief. The depression does not go away, politely waiting to come back in the morning when she is refreshed. It stays, and tonight it works on Mirabelle even as she sleeps, poisioning her dreams. (p.81-2)

There are, of course, some problems. One, there’s a fairytale-ish quality to the whole thing (artist/wallflower stuck in a deadend job, the millionaire older man, blah blah), but I think that’s deliberate. A few pages to the end, Martin’s control of his language slipped, and Ray Porter’s ruminations had an In Conclusion feel to them. Also, in page 101 (so easy to remember), we have one character, Lisa, shaving her legs in the bathroom–Lisa dips the razor in the toilet to clean the blade for the next swipe. WAT. The whole scene didn’t feel ironic, just silly, as though Martin had always thought this was how women shaved. Okay, people, if anyone here dips their razor in the toilet when they shave, well, e-mail me. Because my paradigm going a-shifting. :|

Still, those were minor distractions.  A word to the wise, though, this isn’t a “carefully plotted” book, not in the conventional blurb-sense of the word. We’re following Mirabelle and the characters around, there’s no cosmic bang at the end. This is just it–relationships, the many misconceptions, the careless things we do and say that break another person’s heart.

I’m always giddy when a book shakes things up.

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14 comments

  1. Loved the movie. I can’t wait to read the book, once I get my hands on a copy. Everyone says it’s — ace. :D

    And I soooo agree on the procrastinating bit. The same thing is happening to me. Ho Hum.

    1. Hi, Chris. I usually see this book in BookSales–and sometimes, even in the discounted sections of National Bookstore.

      School is killing me. But that’s the default mode, haha.

  2. Wow, I never hear of other people reading this book – I read it, too, and absolutely loved it. I forgot about the shaving toilet thing, tho! LOL. Yuck.

    Other than that, I was impressed with his ability to write a woman, and how thoughtful and lovely his prose was. And also, I forgot that it was in present tense, but wow, he really pulled it off! You’re making me want to read this thing again now.

    1. Hello, Caroline (you have a lovely name :p)–This really is a lovely little book, with the prose, the character of Mirabelle. And that shaving thing was one glitch in how he “knew” women so well.

      Also, I am very glad to know you find the dip-in-the-toilet thing very disturbing, ;p

  3. Total agreement. I loved this book and was surprised (although I do think Steve Martin is funny, he reminds me of my dad). The fairy tale quality is kind of, well you said, but I love, love, love Mirabelle. She totally makes the book.

    1. Oh, Mirabelle. She’s an amazing character; I want to hug her and hang out with her, and try not to stalk her, haha. I love how she thinks, and how she feels (this makes sense, right?).

  4. Jasmeen · · Reply

    I’ve read this too and I keep telling people they need to read this! But no one believes me! Hahaha, I think they can’t believe Steve Martin could write so well. But you say all this much better so I’ll just print out your review as a support for my rec!

    1. Aw, thank you, haha. Like I said, I was skeptical for years, and, well, when I finally “gave in,” I was very much rewarded. :]

  5. Will have to look this one up. I am always sus of the actor turned writer, but it does occasionally turn up gems.

    1. Hi, Kylie. It really was an unexpected treat. It’s a built-in bias, I guess, against these actors-turned-writers. :p But this really was amazing.

  6. I can tell from the quotes that I probably wouldn’t like the style of writing. Present tense writing has to be very well done for me to like it.

    As far as the shaving/toilet thing – EW! Not in a million years!

    1. Hi, Alyce. I love reading stories written in the present tense, because, yes, they have to be very well done. I think because past tense or historical present is the norm, when a writer pulls off the present tense, for me it sort of signals that this writer knows what he’s doing.

      [Also, it’s a trend in my reading, lately.]

      I think Steve Martin does it well, even if his prose feels “too” simple and naive at times.

      And yes, EW at the shaving/toilet. Makes me think his editor was an as-ignorant man. [Hell, I think men know we don’t use the toilet that way, right?]

  7. […] Shopgirl, by Steve Martin […]

  8. […] draws back to think, “Okay, wow, how’d you figure all this out?” Seriously, between the simple heartbreak of Shopgirl and this insider-y, darker-motivations kind of novel, Steve Martin really scares […]

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