by Elizabeth McKenzie

Original content:

MAR 5, 2008


MacGregor West is a lost soul—eternally between jobs, nursing latent abandonment issues, sponging off his cousin while deciding what happens next in life. When his aunt sends him a shoe box filled with his deceased mother’s memorabilia, he notes a stack of empty envelopes inside that bear a San Francisco return address. Of his mother, he knows this: she drowned in the Seine on a trip to Paris back when he was nine, parceled out to California for the summer. Of his father he knows even less.

Prompted by these new clues to his mother’s mysterious past, he hunts down the address. There, at a Pacific Heights mansion, instead of answers he finds Carolyn Ware. It’s infatuation at first sight for the both of them. Carolyn, daughter of literary legend Charles Ware, can confirm the envelopes are her father’s stationery, but can’t comment on their significance. Neither can—or will—her father. The ensuing love affair between Mac and Carolyn provides greater opportunity for Mac to get to know the Ware family, yet the deeper he probes into a possible correlation between his mother and them, the more elusive both Carolyn and answers become. A poster affixed to Carolyn’s wall that Mac’s mother once designed; a photo of Charles and his famed publishing friend with Mac’s mother in the periphery—these reveal a complicity beneath the family’s elegant, wealthy exterior that they all seem determined to hide.

MacGregor Tells The World is many stories at once—a mystery, a search for identity, a love story and a lively travelogue that recounts the sights and character of San Francisco with fresh, unerring detail. Flashbacks to Mac’s youth flesh out the story and help explain his brooding, haunted nature. Elizabeth McKenzie, author of the acclaimed Stop That Girl, excels, as she did in her first book, at creating compelling characters who arouse your sympathy without ever making them seem self-pitying. A gifted short story writer, she can create a sense of place in just a few lines. It’s pure pleasure to read a writer who not only get her details correct but chooses such evocative, accessible language to paint a picture, such as when Mac nostalgically surveys his cousin’s Redwood City backyard.

“The fence into which he practiced throwing tomahawks—that was really fun. The lumpy vegetable patch Fran worked at like a dog, yielding its tough-skinned tomatoes, mildew-tipped zucchini, and anemic green beans, which crawled up bamboo poles to choke and die. The smell of backyard grass, the hulking form of Tim turning chicken backs over the billowing flames of his grill. Perhaps it was more special and fleeting than he had realized.”

And this, when he hops in his car to return to the magic of San Francisco and Carolyn Ware:

“Driving out of Redwood City, past the neon martini sign and the do-it-yourself dog wash, past the shrill used-car lots and the diesel clouds of tractor trailers idling on side streets for the night, he happily joined the crowd going north on 101. He never tired of approaching the city. Everyone complained about the summer fog, but these were the complaints of proud parents apologizing with smiles for the brattish deeds of their children.”

Mac’s relationship with Carolyn provides great momentum to the increasingly intricate plot, but when the relationship begins to meander, so does the pacing. Part of this is due to the lively cast of characters who parade through the story, offering whimsical commentaries and quirks that entertain but often distract the reader. It’s as if one of the author’s greatest strengths—producing lively characters and organic dialogue—becomes the story’s weakness as well. Short stories tend to be fueled more by vivid characters and epiphany than by plot. But in the course of a novel, when quirky characters appear late and offer rambling discourses on life, it diverts more than illuminates. The pacing lags, not because the writing gets dull, but because it gets bogged down with too many interesting digressions, leaving the reader unsure about which one is crucial to the plot.

That said, “too much interesting writing” is a very small problem in the grand scheme of things, and the story’s lively, unpredictable nature makes for a deliciously readable novel. The pacing rallies, unforeseen plots twists and surprises arise, and the reader is once again right alongside Mac as he finds answers—including unexpected ones—and learns how to take on the world. And then tell the world just that. MacGregor Tells The World is a recommended read, particularly for its heartfelt musings on life, loss and love, and its evocative portrayal of San Francisco.

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