The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

February 8, 2008

Book review: ‘Lobster’ a winning read, claws down

Through their explorations of characters’ lives both interior and exterior, some books capture life’s bittersweet moments with such clarity and intimacy that they give one pause. Stewart O’Nan’s slim novella, “Last Night at the Lobster,” is just such a work.

The protagonist is Manny, manager of a Red Lobster restaurant. He’s a hard worker and a good guy. Sure, he sometimes gets high before he starts his day, and he carries a torch for a co-worker even though his girlfriend is pregnant with their child. But he’s a professional. He’s proud of his shabby restaurant. He treats his sometimes undeserving staff with respect. He strives to make his customers happy, even if their kids are monsters.

The entire story takes place in one day, the last this particular Lobster will be open for business. Next week, Manny moves on to the Olive Garden. But for now, as a blizzard gradually envelopes the town, he’s determined to stay open this final night, even as his employees desert him one by one and the customers dwindle.

There’s an undercurrent of suspense throughout the book, one grounded in real life. As the storm worsens, will Manny really stay open to the bitter end? Will he reconcile with his co-worker and leave his girlfriend? Is there a winner among the lottery tickets he bought on his lunch break?

“Last Night at the Lobster” has a decidedly elegiac tone, but it’s not without humor — the banter of the Lobster’s workers is familiar to anyone who’s ever held a job. And although the characters and their lives seem everyday, the book’s narrative language is anything but. Cars “sniff for parking spots” in the mall lot, a kid is “hanging off his mother’s neck like a possum,” the lobster tank has a “water-torture dribble” sound to it. The writer in me envies O’Nan’s skill.

For more light-hearted reading, check out Meg Cabot’s Heather Wells series.

“Size 12 is Not Fat” and “Size 14 is Not Fat Either” introduced readers to Heather, a former pop star (think Britney Spears, minus the meltdowns) getting her life together after a run of bad luck. She’s been dumped by both her record label and her fiancé, her mother has run off to Argentina with all of her earnings, and she’s fighting a weight gain that, as she points out, renders her size more in keeping with that of the average American woman.

Starting over at 28, Heather moves in with Cooper, who happens to be her ex-fiance’s brother as well as the unrequited object of her affection, and gets a job as an assistant residence hall director. When mysterious deaths occur on her watch, she becomes embroiled in trying to solve them.

The most recent installment, “Big-Boned,” finds Heather chugging along nicely. She still has her job and is even taking classes. She continues to pine for Cooper, though that hasn’t stopped her from dating someone else. But life is about to get complicated pretty fast: “Death Dorm” strikes again when her latest boss turns up dead.

I must admit that I don’t read the Heather Wells books for the mystery aspect — Agatha Christie this isn’t. No, it’s chick lit all the way: Heather battles her waistline. She tries to keep her ex-fiance out of her life. And it’s so obvious she and Cooper are perfect for each other, but will they ever get together?

The humor is what keeps me coming back for more. Heather’s stream-of-consciousness monologues make me laugh out loud. When her boyfriend talks her into going running with him, her enthusiasm soon vanishes: “Okay, well, that’s enough of that. Whew. I mean, a girl could hyperventilate from doing that… Also, I think I felt something come loose back there.”

The supporting characters are also appealing. Cooper is hot, but he’s far from perfect; he’s slow to buy into Heather’s theories about the murders, he’s kind of a slob, and he’s obsessed with his vintage BMW. And Heather’s co-workers — Tom, the gay football player turned dorm director, and Muffy, the Southern beauty queen hired to deal with the college’s PR nightmare — are a hoot.

Although I’m not sure how long Meg Cabot can maintain her premise — how many murders can really happen in one woman’s workplace before things just get ludicrous? — I hope this won’t be the end of the Heather Wells series. I crave Cabot’s books like Heather does chocolate-covered Oreos.

Lisa Brown is the administrative assistant at the Joplin Public Library.