Although we have one degree of separation several times over, I do not know Ayelet Waldman. And yet, the genesis of her novels is completely clear to me. This isn't just because Ayelet spent a few months baring her soul on Bad Mother; it's because in a primal way that surely hinges upon identification in all its manifestations, I get her source material, her motivations, her plots (if you've only recently tuned in, more on my Ayelet fixation here).
I do know Jenny Davidson. We met several years ago at a wedding (in the Rainbow Room, with calla lilies and a loud wedding band), and then we met again, and then we discovered each other's blogs, and the rest is history, books, running, and lots of late-night motivational and analytical email conversations.
OK, I'll get to the chase, for those of you who can't wait: there is no need to equivocate or dissimulate: I loved The Explosionist, Jenny's soon-to-be-published second novel. It's funny, interesting, gripping, and plotted out the wazoo. It's got a completely loveable schoolgirl heroine and it works genre like you wouldn't believe: boarding school, detective, ghost, alternative history. My only complaint is that the cover, while delightful in the abstract, is completely wrong: Sophie Hunter looks nothing like Nancy Drew. And I do wonder how its target audience will respond to the complexity of its historical premise, but S and Libby were arguing last night (yes, the delightful Libby, in my very own home--perhaps this post should be titled "How Many Real Life Bloggers Can Fit in a Post?") that its target audience is likely to think either that it's fantasy or--yikes--that it's truth, disregarding alternative history altogether, unless they are highly sophisticated and educated, in which case they will delight in it.
Don't worry, I have not forgotten the Ayelet hook. As I was saying, I know (or feel that I know, in the nexus of the cultural and the literary) where Ayelet's books come from. And in many places I know where Jenny's book comes from. There are passages, for instance, that are pure Jenny Davidson herself. Like these:
There was something undignified about packing rather than simply storming out, but she retained just enough self-command to know that it would be a disaster to leave without her homework.
The trouble with waiting for someone was that it was like not being able to go to sleep. It gave one altogether too much time to think about things.
Referring back to Jenny's professional life (scroll down), there is eighteenth-century literature and culture galore, down to the powerful woman doctor named after the woman novelist. Her penchant for genre fiction is self-evident, and even in passages like the extended description of how dynamite is made (luckily followed up by Sophie--standing in for the reader--wondering why on earth she is being told this) I can see Jenny's love of research and the obscure fact.
And yet, the exuberant intricacy of the novel's plot boggles me (I must confess, I occasionally lost track of what was really happening--it didn't matter, because the book was so enjoyable, but I'm still not sure who was funding the terrorists and why). I try to imagine Jenny, the Jenny I know, coming up with this complex machination, and even though I see so much of the source material, I just have no idea how and why she synthesized it, and I am deeply amazed and impressed.
(One more point that didn't find its way into the complete extended thought above: The novel is also intensely political, in an allegorical manner I didn't expect at all, because I don't think Jenny ever mentioned it, and which definitely surprised me, because I do not think I have ever heard Jenny talk about politics.)