"Alice Fantastic" by Maggie Estep

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In a charming piece that manages to be touching in spite of itself, Maggie Estep spins the story of how Alice Hunter, her sister Eloise, and their mother navigate their way through very challenging lives. It’s a hysterically funny piece, full of gallows and self-deprecating humor. Novelist Jonathan Ames says Ms. Estep “is the bastard daughter of Raymond Chandler and Anaïs Nin.”

So yes, the sisters are so abrupt with each other and their mother, both in thought and word, that their outward, gruff exteriors may be described as hard-boiled. And though the author portrays the ever-present inclination among all three to express and act upon their erotic desires, this inclination never intrudes on the story; it always serves it as an integral feature that at times brings the three women closer and at other times drives a wedge between them.

This novel is about the growth of all three women, who are closer in age than most mother-daughter combinations. The women grow in fits and starts, through painful episodes, like the incarceration of a lover, and an unexpected pregnancy. Ms. Estep knows her subject, and doesn’t let any of her narrative decay into sentiment (which is warded off by wise-cracking and verbal bullying), or rancor, because eventually we know it’s no more than skin-deep. This is the growth that’s on offer. It will affect you; it gratifies with its balanced treatment and realistic conclusions.

I enjoyed Alice Fantastic more and more as I got into it. I’m glad I stuck with it because 40% of the way in, I wasn’t sure I would. Give this a go. Maggie Estep’s book is bright, clever, very well paced, and surprisingly affecting.

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