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The International Writers Magazine: Review

The Ivy Chronicles by Karen Quinn
Publisher: Pocket Books
ISBN:  0-7434-9216-1
A review by Mia Palmer


The Ivy Chronicles is, in most respects, the typical story of a put upon, newly single mother who reinvents herself; our Jewish, insecure heroine, Ivy Ames.  The story starts when Ivy finds herself fired from her lucrative, high-powered job. Outmanoeuvred and ignobly ousted, within forty eight hours, from a top New York bank.  This is the first hint that Ivy is not the sharpest tool in the box.  She then discovers her once successful but now unemployed husband, cheating on her. All this action takes place within the first two chapters. Ivy instantly banishes the husband from their wealthy lifestyle and Park Avenue apartment.  This is done without too much mourning over the failed marriage or any lengthy explanation to their children. With these events Ivy realises she can no longer finance her luxurious life and must downsize drastically. She moves with her daughters, Skyler eight, Kate six and pug dog Sir Elton, to an inexpensive Jewish neighbourhood.  Ivy also has to remove her daughters from private education at one of the top schools in New York City.

Once the main thrust of this well used riches to rags plot is set up, the book becomes only slightly less predictable.  The story is inherently over the top. With the inevitable love interest that goes wrong and the right guy under Ivy’s nose the whole time.  What stops this book being completely insipid, is the witty narrative voice of Ivy and the far fetched consequences of her actions.  Yet despite this, the heroine’s excessive shallowness and obsession with wealth continue to frustrate and irritate. 

The plot thickens somewhat, when in order to provide for her family, Ivy starts her own business; as a private schools admissions adviser.  This involves a cast of unconvincing surface characters, desperate to get their little darlings coveted spaces in New York private schools.  The lesbian couple, a mobster boss, an overbearing, megalomaniac and a distant, poisonous, business-woman are just a few of her clients.  All come with their messed up and diverse children.  Quinn never actually gives these stereotypes depth. Leading inevitably to one dimensional personas, which only aid and abet an already naive writing style.

The book tries to address themes such as racism and class discrimination in easily digestible and non-political ways.  Unfortunately for Quinn, Chick Lit has been used in much more convincing and erudite ways regarding these subjects. Joanne Harris’ novel Chocolat for example, is much more subtle and humorous when dealing with these matters. Quinn uses the cut-throat world of private education in New York as her soapbox. So you might be forgiven for expecting something new; unfortunately this does not happen.   Quinn’s tackling of subjects, such as body image, security, parenting and media, is marginally more successful. Managing the odd well put, tongue in cheek jibe at our social and gender obsessions.  The funnier moments consist of tenuous situations involving psychic John Edward and George Clooney.  Further brief moments of comedy are found in descriptions of parental paranoia and the Jewish characters, ‘an itsy-bitsy Jewish grandmother and her ancient humpbacked

The interaction of the parents with their children is perhaps for me the most believable part of the novel.  The parent/child incidents which are explored are very true to life and at times witty, if somewhat basic. ‘I agreed, knowing what an honor it was to be asked to care for the class pet during the school break... Within two hours of his arrival, Romeo (the guinea pig) was dead as a stone.’ 

However the portrayal of the brutal and tortuous New York private education system is implausible.  This could, of course, be down to my lack of experience in this particular area. Quinn is clearly an authority having actually run the same business as her character Ivy.  Yet still the seemingly savage process is unconvincing, as opposed to amusing, due to the superficial and farcical view-points used.

The plot tries to be fast paced and at times succeeds, providing the occasional light-hearted insights into single motherhood. This goes someway to balancing the lack of depth in the characters and the inexperienced writing style. The ending is unsurprising, with the inevitable romantic tie up of loose ends being a tad quick and unconvincing.

However the various moments of humour and narrative voice of Ivy did convince me to keep reading.  If you have some time on a beach, with nothing to do, The Ivy Chronicles can certainly keep you amused. Yet afterward I asked myself, did I actually care about what happened to un-endearing Ivy Ames?  The answer is a heartfelt no.
© Mia Palmer December 2009
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