Dolls Behaving Badly
by Cinthia Ritchie
Ritchie has written a uniquely structured novel that uses a diary format, employing first-person narration, letters, and recipes. The structure adds considerable depth to what would otherwise be an ordinary story of a single mom trying desperately to support herself and her young son in an economically depressed small Alaskan town. Much of the novel reminded me of the TV show, Northern Exposure, except there is no outsider to pass judgment on the quirky, eccentric characters. Instead, the reader immediately feels the normality of the community: the bill collectors demanding payment often do so with dry humor; the crisscrossing of romantic relationships raises few eyebrows; and seeing and talking to ghosts seems a natural result of stress and loneliness.
Ritchie draws an Alaskan territory that is otherworldly beautiful and yet cruel at the edges. The cold darkness of winter seeped into my bones as I read, yet I wished I could be there as Carla comes across a moose while running. And I wished I could be there for the community as well. You definitely feel the draw of Alaska as a place where a person could be her- or himself, where everyone has a quirk or two and where no one, ultimately, is more normal than anyone else.
A lot happens in this novel as Carla tries to straighten out her finances as her life threatens to spin off into a melodramatic disaster of soap opera proportions. Her older sister, with whom she had always had an uneasy relationship, suddenly moves into Carla’s trailer, seemingly ignorant of Carla’s need for stability and money. An anthropologist pursues her romantically, her closest friend sets off on her own roller coaster of romance and fear, and a street-smart teenager becomes her son’s babysitter and, by extension, the daughter that Carla often imagined having. Her son Jay-Jay is gifted and has a preternatural wisdom that both his parents depend on. He’s their proof that they did at least one right thing together.
How Carla manages to earn some extra cash, get noticed as an artist, and weather the resulting publicity moves her story along at a steady pace. It was a good thing I read this book while on vacation because it was hard to put down. I always wanted to read “one more chapter” before turning off the lights.
This is a rich novel. I could write so much more but I don’t want to give it all away. Read it for yourself.
(This review has appeared elsewhere.)