Book Review: Six Weeks to Toxic

When I was a wee undergrad at GWU, I took a few creative writing classes. Often, my classmates would bring in stories inspired by events in their life (write what you know, eh?). This made the constructive criticism in class somewhat difficult, as it meant you had to confront the reality of the event, as well as the fictionalization.

Any comment that called into question the vraisemblance of the piece was inevitably met by the argument that 'it actually happened' which, when the work was particularly bleak or unpleasant, seriously stymied the discussion.

At one such juncture, a writing prof. intervened, explaining that even if something did happen in real life, you still have to sell it on the page. You can't simply let the facts speak for themselves, there has to be context, motivation, and meaning.

Louisa McCormack's Six Weeks to Toxic brought that advice to mind several times over, because at every moment where I thought 'What? Who does that?' and 'That doesn't even make sense' I got the distinct impression McCormack would defend herself by pointing to a similar incident in her own life.

The blurb on Six Weeks claims the story is about, essentially, the break-up of two friends, in the same way that standard chick lit often addresses similar conflict between lovers. Bess and Maxine are 30-something BFFs who, over the course of six weeks (between New Years Day and Valentine's Day) reach an impass.

Bess, a foley artist, is relatively poor, and her friend Maxine has rich parents and therefore gets tons of expensive stuff (i.e. a house) all the time. Maxine hooks up with a jerky lawyer and they set Bess up with his goofy friend.

Maxine is a 'type-a' personality who obsesses over her good-on-paper boy's shallowness and/or inattention. Bess is more relaxed, and comes from a more 'normal' working-class family. She is unimpressed by the goofy friend, but is soon won over by the dog and the fantastic sex and the complete lack of conflict in their every interaction.

This isn't the kind of book you expect to come away from with some great epiphany about the nature of friendship, but rather one you hope to float through on a lazy summer afternoon, identifying with the protagonist, rooting for her in times of trouble, and feeling a soft satisfaction when she reaches a happy ending.

Unfortunately, I was so often distracted by sheer disbelief and confusion that I couldn't buy the story, or the apparent happy ending. Every time I the plot started to roll along, Bess' interior monologue becoming entertaining in its familiarity, something would happen, or a description would appear that brought everything to a complete stop because it was unbelievable or inconsistent.

My biggest qualm is with the description of Maxine. Her character is never consistent - I don't mean she should act the same all the time, but her erratic behavior isn't creating depth or even communicating a kind of mental unraveling, it's flat out schizophrenic.

Even if it were a convincing portrayal of multiple personality disorder, that would be something, but there's never enough information to paint a full picture. She's flat.

Another of my peeves in this kind of book is the perfect boyfriend. In this case, the goofball who wins over the reluctant Bess. I'm sorry, they don't exist. No one's taking you to Paris after two weeks unless they're ridiculously wealthy and/or a little unstable.

Placing him opposite Maxine's horrible man doesn't make either of them more convincing. Both of the men never really took shape for me - one never seemed more that a muscled wall, and the other a mere suit with a cell phone.

Because the characters are so poorly drawn, the plot fails to sell as plausible. The deterioration of friendship that McCormack tries to tell never comes together because the friends themselves don't make sense as people, so it's impossible to believe any long-standing anything between them.

McCormack has more skill in describing location and wardrobe than people. Perhaps because that's all she gives them - Bess, Maxine, and the other characters are given nothing more than where they are, what incredible mini they sport or the details of their bed sheets. There's no sense that there's more to them - no depth, no richness, no flaws and strengths.

The premise isn't a bad idea, and it is refreshing to read something so confidently set in Toronto. I only wish McCormack had spent a little more time writing about who her characters really are and less about what boots they wear to brave the slush of Bloor.

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