REVIEW: The Sinful Life of Lucy Burns by Elizabeth Leiknes
Dear Ms. Leiknes:
If it were not for the wonderful query from your editor, Harrison Demchick, I do not know if I would have picked up your novel, The Sinful Life of Lucy Burns. And given my response to the book, I would suggest that more publishers take the approach of Mr. Demchick in either promoting books they truly believe in or at least being very smart about showing respect to and familiarity with potential reviewers. Because I liked The Sinful Life of Lucy Burns quite a bit and hope that many more readers get a chance to enjoy this quirky, intelligent, clever ode to everything from Faust to Walt Disney to the Native American trickster tradition to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
When me first meet the grown-up Lucy Burns, she is welcoming two police officers into her home who are suspicious about the strong thermal energy emanating from her house (and yes, this is a legitimate means for law enforcement to use in seeking a warrant to search your home for drugs). If they only knew that what Lucy has in her basement is much more problematic than a little illicit horticulture, they never would have knocked at her door. Most people who enter Lucy’s home never leave, because people who enter Lucy’s home have been invited there to help Lucy meet her quota of souls for Satan. That’s right; Lucy is one of hell’s “Facilitators,” a person who manages one of the numerous earthly portals to hell.
If it hadn’t been for a letter written “To Whom It May Concern” on the eve of Lucy’s eleventh birthday, she might never have become a Facilitator, but when Lucy’s sister Ellen was hit by a truck and lay comatose in the hospital, Lucy desperately placed a letter begging for her sister’s recovery in the backyard “magic mailbox” she and Ellen used for all their letters to Santa and the like. “Make Ellen wake up and I’ll be forever in your debt,” Lucy wrote, and it wasn’t until Lucy turned 18 and went off to college that “To Whom It May Concern” showed exactly how concerned He was, and just how indebted Lucy would now be. In exchange for Ellen’s life, plus eternally perky boobs and Charlie’s Angels-esque beauty, Lucy’s fundamental life purpose was now focused on guiding the particularly sinful to their spiritual just desserts.
At first glance, it is tempting to read The Sinful Life of Lucy Burns as a straight morality tale and to expect that Lucy would either meet the same fate as her “victims” (the logical outcome for one who sins in order to punish other sinners) or to struggle mightily against her fate, determined to be the very best person she can be in the face of her own inadvertent damnation. But Leiknes resists these obvious paths for Lucy, instead developing her as a woman who, while not untroubled by her life, does not particularly fight it, either. Moving to Reno and away from her family (cutting off all ties), reluctantly accepting the fact that she can never marry and have children (if she tries to sleep with a man more than once she is compelled to vomit), Lucy lives a pretty solitary existence (she may have devilish mojo, but it’s still awkward to explain her life to people). To deal with her own guilt, Lucy frequents the Snow White Car Wash, and
Somewhere between the baptismal pre-wash soak and the spotfree finish, though, I noticed I felt lighter, more relaxed and, like my car, cleaner. With my tires locked on the metal track, the car inched forward, and on every third-mini-lurch, I turned to witness my dirtiest parts, gurgling in defiance, sweeping down, down, down the drain. Near the end of the cycle, I caught a glimpse of my new self in a large mirror hung near the car wash exit. It was hazy and out-of-focus, but it was me.
As in Snow White, mirrors and reflections, temptation and the deceptiveness of appearances, all have a big part to play in The Sinful Life of Lucy Burns. In fact, one of the distinct pleasures of reading this novel is the layering of imagery and metaphor and the riffing on various pop culture references, as well as literature and art. The image Lucy has of herself, the image she portrays to others, the nature of her work and the questionable state of her soul, are all simultaneously more and less than they seem. And when Lucy gets the chance – through her one good friend and next-door neighbor Maggie – to see her childhood crush, pop singer Teddy Nightingale, she is dumbfounded when he seems to recognize her, even though they’ve never met. But in Lucy Teddy seem himself, a reflected image of an unhappy Facilitator (his wish was for mad songwriting skills), and does he have news for Lucy: there is hope for “salvation” from the life Lucy is leading for those who are willing to take the risk and meet the criteria (an accelerated quota of delivered souls, an adequate Facilitator replacement, and elimination of a “target” to be determined by the big boss man himself). All of which must be completed within an extremely compressed time frame.
So should Lucy try to escape her life? How bad is it, really; is it better than hosting a Pampered Chef party (at Maggie’s request, since Maggie’s house is under a constant state of renovation) on Halloween for the neighborhood women who think Lucy is at best strange and worst downright scary:
I struggled to remember what it was like to be normal. Alone on my front porch, I looked down the block, lit by streetlights and silhouetted by black tree branches swaying with increasing intensity. An army of sugar-high children cloaked in various combinations of satin, plastic, and masks marched from house to house, reminding me of a family life I’d never have. And despite my lack of candy, they kept coming. Waves of disappointed witches and cowboys left empty-handed while the real moms sat in my living room buying cake-decoration kits and whatever else helped “make food fun again.”
Maybe not, but once Lucy meets Luke Marshall, a writer who teaches creative writing at the local university, the allure of normalcy, of emotional intimacy and the promise of having a family of her own, is just too tempting to resist. But lest you think that Lucy’s journey is from morally ambiguous anti-heroine to virtuous wife and mother, please note the circumstances under which Lucy first meets Luke, whom Maggie has invited to Lucy’s during the Pampered Chef party, convinced he would be a good prospect for Lucy. Who could anticipate that the nervous Lucy, dressed ironically as a nun and drinking heavily, would forget the direction of her own bathroom right about the time Luke showed up:
“Oh, shoot me now.” I grabbed her arm. “He doesn’t want to see me. For God’s sake, I peed in my hall closet! Sure, Maggie, I bet he said to himself, ‘That’s a real hot babe. She loves to host Tupperware parties, ridicule the nunnery, and get so fucking drunk she pees on herself. I gotta get me some of that.”
Maggie resumed her belly laughing.
“Seriously. What kind of weirdo sees that and wants a date? He’s probably a serial killer. Oh, crap, I know what it is,” I said, walking over to the coffee pot. “He’s into the whole golden shower thing. He’s a dirty pee lover.”
Luke’s sexual fantasies are never revealed, but the reason he was not turned off during his first introduction is compelling: Luke is blind. Of course he is. Because this is a book all about images, perceptions, reflections, how and what people see, and how and what people choose. Maggie’s son Finnegan, for example, seems to see Lucy much more clearly than she sees herself, at one point asking her very pointedly if she needs to use the God’s eye he has brought to school for show and tell (and I don’t doubt we are supposed to be thinking about the echoes of sinister and fenestra, the Latin word for window, in Finnster, Lucy’s nickname for him). Luke, much to my appreciation, does not possess some magical insight into Lucy, despite his powerful attraction to her (if anything, her somewhat twisty nature and complicated life circumstances draw him in further). And it is easy to understand her appeal to Luke, because she is appealing as the novel’s protagonist. Not overtly virtuous or sickly sweet, Lucy combines smart-ass cynicism with a good deal of insight into human nature a deep attraction to authentic decency. It is, perhaps, this mixture of somewhat contradictory characteristics that makes Lucy’s acceptance of her apparent fate both understandable and unsustainable. When she finally decides to read the box full of letters from her sister she has been collecting but dared not open, she gets some news that makes the semi-passivity of her life as a Facilitator no longer viable for her. It is time, in other words, to bring into focus a life chosen with intention and not based on a letter (or two) addressed “To Whom It May Concern.”
There are so many clever things in the story I would love to share, but many of them are spoilers, and so much of the pleasure of reading The Sinful Life of Lucy Burns is in the unfolding of these details. Some of them, like the fact that one of the most powerful portals to hell resides in a casino roller coaster called The Bestia or that Lucy’s own hound of hell is named Pluto, are a little cheesy, while the way Finn worries that his wish to have one of his classmates gone seems to have come true when the kid disappears suddenly from school, is a poignant re-working of Lucy’s own pattern of childhood wishing, as well as a nice play on the ‘omnipotence of thought’ stage children go through and which helps create the foundation for the novel. That the two big box office movies referred to throughout the book form their own battle of good and evil – one movie is about Jesus Christ, the other about Hitler – serves as a nice comic counterpoint to Lucy’s own vacillating awareness.
As I tried to demonstrate through my use of quotes from the novel, the writing is crisp, clever, and thoughtful. At one point, for example, Lucy reflects on her admiration for Teddy Nightingale’s songs, noting that his “wasn’t flag-waving patriotism, the kind you see on bumper stickers with buff bald eagles ready to kick foreign ass; it was honest and lovely, the kind of song-writing that made me want to take a coast-to-coast road trip and stop at every diner in between.” Of her friend Maggie, she is impressed by the fact that “[o]ne minute she was driving a powder-blue minivan complete with the ‘My Kid Is An Honor Student’ bumper sticker, the next minute she was planning absurd parties just to promote neighborhood camaraderie, and capping it all off as a martini-drinking potty mouth who, deep down, feared being normal.” And of her own gradual dissatisfaction with life, she understood in retrospect that in the same way that the “mainstream was falling out of love with [Teddy Nightingale’s] naÃ¯veté. . . [she] was falling out of love with [herself]” even if it would take far more than the devil to make her do something about it.
In terms of genre classification, to me The Sinful Life of Lucy Burns would be shelved as general fiction. It has elements of chick lit, women’s fiction, Romance, and fable, but I wouldn’t categorize it as one over another (when Lucy says, at one point, “Nobody is one-hundred percent anything,” I’d say that goes for this book, too). The novel is also on the short side, which means that there are no wasted sentences or moments, but it also means that the novel is shorter on character development than on its somewhat satiric philosophizing and fable-riffing. The length was not a problem for me, per se, but I did find the final section of the novel (aka The Resolution) rushed and somewhat too pat. That’s one of the difficulties, I think, when one sets out to investigate the nature of moral relativism, dualism, and/or moral ambiguity – it makes any resolution a problematic endeavor. However, the fabular aspects of the story basically require resolution, creating a contradiction that takes just a little more nuance than Leiknes manages in the novel. That isn’t to say that the ending is not clever, or emotionally satisfying, because for me it was; but at the same time I felt slightly let down that this novel that struck me as so clever and nicely layered tucked up quite so neatly in the end.
Still, I know that I will be re-reading The Sinful Life of Lucy Burns to catch the myriad references and cross-references that I missed the first time through. There is a richness to the fictional world Leiknes creates that commands the reader’s attention, from the history of Teddy Nightingale’s music to Luke’s novel in progress about a storytelling female bartender who loves the legend of the Corn Maiden (which Lucy has no problem stealing from his bag so she can glean some more insight into him), to the anecdotes from Lucy’s childhood that offer crucial pieces of insight into Lucy’s current predicament. I know that any time I’m struggling in a review to adequately convey how smart and well-written a book is that it’s a winner. And had the clever balancing act of the novel been sustained through the end, the book might very well have been a straight A read for me. As it is, though, I can’t give it anything lower than a B+, and I really hope that anyone looking for a witty, literate, wonderfully entertaining read will choose this book.
Elizabeth Leiknes will be signing in the Kansas City area on the following dates:
- Monday, June 15 at Olathe Borders from 5:00-7:00 P.M.
- Tuesday, June 16 at Barnes & Noble at the Oak Park Mall from 4:00-6:00 P.M.
- Wednesday, June 17 at Scooter’s Coffeehouse from 5:00-7:00 P.M.