The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

November 21, 2009

JPL book review: Ex-child star’s ‘Adventures’ funny, touching characters


If you’ve seen the 1977 film “The Goodbye Girl,” you might recall Quinn Cummings. She was the precocious kid who cracked wise with Richard Dreyfuss and Marsha Mason, a performance that earned her an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress.

Alas, like many child stars, her acting career faltered as she grew up. She’d be nothing more than an entertainment footnote if not for two things: her invention of the HipHugger baby sling, and her newfound popularity as a blogger, which has resulted in the publication of her first book, “Notes from the Underwire: Adventures from My Awkward and Lovely Life.”

I know, I know: “Notes from the Underwire” sounds like a bad Erma Bombeck book. But stick with me here. If you can get past the lame house frau title, you’ll find a very funny and occasionally poignant collection of personal essays.

Cummings is not a woman who takes herself too seriously. In fact, the first piece in the book, “My Original Nose,” details a bad encounter with a plate-glass window and delves into her chronic clumsiness — troublesome for her, but hilarious for those around her.

While still trying to make a living as an actress, she begins to view herself as “professionally unattractive” when it comes to getting roles: “Now I was finding out I had set up my camp in the no-man’s land between Cute Girl, Ugly Friend, and the Thing that Demands Payment in Order to Walk over Its Bridge.”

An attempt to launch a career as a sitcom writer earns her this praise from a television executive: “You’re good. You’re not just good. You’re ‘Saved by the Bell’ good.” Somehow, she didn’t think this compliment was an indication that she’d set the sitcom-writing world on fire.

Cummings has a snarky sense of humor that serves her well, especially when dealing with the annoyances of everyday life. She spends sleepless nights contending with a catnip-crazed feline.

As a first-time homeowner, she encounters everything from an animal skeleton to giant holes in the wall, courtesy of a termite infestation. She flips out when her family uses her cherished soap, shrieking, “Who fondled my good soap?”

Think your prom night was bad? Wait until you hear Cummings’story.

Surprisingly, she can rein in her prickliness quite effectively. A few of the essays take heartbreaking turns. In “Like a Tattoo on Your Butt,” she relates her mother’s battle with cancer. After a brutal afternoon of wig shopping, her mother finally loses it.

“I watched her face crumple, her head lean against the steering wheel. She sobbed in sheer terror while I am there, sweating, breathing hard, and shredding the list of American Cancer Society-approved wig shops between my trembling fingers.”

When AIDS begins to ravage Los Angeles in the ’80s, Cummings, who grew up in a neighborhood that “competes with the Castro District in San Francisco, New York’s Fire Island and a reunion of Liberace’s chauffeurs as being the gayest place on earth,” decides to become a volunteer hot-line counselor at the AIDS Project Los Angeles. Her passion to help eventually falters under the crushing reality of the disease.

“This was the first phone call where it occurred to me that the ‘them’ in the AIDS epidemic might look a lot like me,” she wrote.

“Dog Days” depicts Cummings’ rescue of a stray and her attempts to find her a good home. I had to reach for the Kleenex while reading this one. Anyone who has ever loved a dog will feel her pain, frustration and affection.

“I knew exactly who Ursula was capable of becoming, and I loved her anyway,” she writes. “I did the best I could. What else is there?”

If you need a lot of laughs and perhaps some tear-shedding, check out “Notes from the Underwire” by Quinn Cummings. This former child star is a footnote no longer.

Lisa E. Brown is the administrative assistant of the Joplin Public Library.