Original Content...

JUL 2, 2008


Arabella Hicks, thirty-eight and unmarried, teaches a fiction writing class on Wednesday nights, after which she goes to visit her mother in a nursing home. Theirs has always been a contentious relationship, but Vera, her mother, takes interest in Arabella’s class recountings and the subject becomes neutral ground for them. Weeks later, Vera reveals surprising news: she has begun her to write her own short story. Only she can’t come up with the right ending. Arabella can appreciate this; she has been working on the same novel for seven years and can’t ever seem to finish it. How the two women work through their challenges, with help from the members of Arabella’s fiction class, and come to find answers, is at the core of this warm-hearted novel by debut author Susan Breen.

Breen has a breezy, engaging style of writing that draws in the reader, particularly anyone who has taken any continuing education class, writing or otherwise. The classroom observations are astute and entertaining. Having been a student in more than one such class, I could only laugh at the types I recognized—the fierce-faced scrawler, the pretty, got-it-all-together girl, the dreamer, the “elegant gentleman,” a nicely dressed, retired, twice-divorced playboy who irritates the teacher with his whispering and cavalier attitude. Breen’s pithy observations about her characters and their quirks, such as the following, are what I most enjoyed in the story.

"The angry woman with the hair like a Q-Tip raises her hand. It seems so odd to Arabella that this woman’s name is Dorothy. That’s a name she associates with Kansas and pigtails and a dog named Toto, and this woman is the antithesis of all that. She’s Dorothy after a bad marriage."

Another great observation:

"She can hear people laughing in the next classroom; that’s the screenwriting class. They are always so cheerful in screenwriting; the memoir class is always in tears, and the fiction class seems to be confused."

The novel divides itself between classes, visits to the nursing home, and eventually excerpts of Vera’s short story. The second angle of the story is not quite so light: Arabella’s mother is dying. She’s suffering from Parkinson’s Disease and every trip to the nursing home brings new challenges to mother and daughter, not only Vera’s worsening physical condition but also conversations that degenerate into bickering. Arabella understands her mother has had a hard life, her husband falling sick with multiple sclerosis five years into their marriage and wasting away through the next twenty-five years, but this does not make Vera any easier to deal with, nor does it always make for easy reading material for the reader.

On the other hand, I loved reading about the class. Adult community classes seem to represent a microcosm of life—the hopeful beginning, the bumps you encounter along the way, some insurmountable issue that you can only break through with the help of your classmates, who have evolved into comrades. Polite façades come down and secrets are revealed. Romances develop and/or deteriorate.

In regards to romance, I must confess I was not able to buy into the chemistry that develops between Arabella and her smirking “elegant gentleman” student. Breen’s early descriptions of him as being someone rather unlikable, drummed in multiple times, were all too effective. It’s hard for the reader to fathom why Arabella should develop tender feelings toward him, particularly after she’s snapped at him over his whispering during class and his reply is, “I was just telling Alice here that you’re the cutest teacher I’ve ever had.” Eew. Arabella herself has mused that she has never liked his type and that “he must be sixty,” which would make him closer to her mother’s age. This is one romance I didn’t particularly want to see develop. But a romance does indeed ensue, which, I will admit, was depicted with all the right detail and pacing that my inner-romance-reader craves.

A second issue distracted me as well: excerpts of Vera’s short story punctuate the novel, interrupting the smooth flow of the rest of the narrative. A cursory inspection told me the story would operate on its own trajectory, and I was, in truth, far more interested in getting back inside the classroom. I therefore found myself soon skipping over the excerpts. Lest you criticize me for my poor reading habits, let it be known that I went back and read the entire “story within a story” toward the end, when the subject came into greater play. And it is indeed pertinent; it’s Vera’s opportunity to share the more hopeful elements of her past in a way that will allow Arabella to better understand her. The short story is masterfully written (Breen actually wrote this story years ago and had it published in a literary journal), but I’m not sure how effective a tool the early excerpts are in keeping a novel reader’s interest ratcheted up.

These, however, are small points in the grand scheme of the story. The Fiction Class is an affecting read and a polished debut effort. No surprise there—Breen teaches fiction writing classes and her short stories have been published in a number of notable literary magazines. What is remarkable is how subtly she delivers quality literary fiction that is, at the same time, accessible and entertaining. No easy feat, that. A recommended read for anyone who enjoys reading, writing, “classroom” settings and mother-daughter relationship stories.

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