About a girl

Literary aspirants might spend years “workshopping” their novels and story collections in the fiction factories of university master-of-fine-arts programs, but few bother with essays. Perhaps it’s the insolvency of the form—when has a Harper’s piece ever blossomed into a Miramax deal? Still, Meghan Daum burst onto the scene with such a collection—My Misspent Youth—and surely was flattered when critics almost unanimously measured her against Sacramento native Joan Didion. Both women came to prominence in their youth through eloquent, journalistic essays that bounce between the personal and, if not the overtly political, the social longings that transcend the women’s own predicaments.

Daum enjoys decoding class signifiers, such as wall-to-wall carpeting and bed ruffles, and repudiating the cultural tendency to emblematize our passions. She writes personal essays that manage to skirt the genre’s endemic solipsism by connecting to and analyzing broader cultural contradictions.

Daum’s debut novel, The Quality of Life Report, expands on the material with the tale of Lucinda Trout, a lifestyle correspondent in her late 20s who covers the thong beat for a Today-styled morning show. She poses such penetrating questions as, “Are scones the new muffin?” and “Yogurt. What happened? It just went away.”

To flee what she believes is an inauthentic life in a city of pathological impatience and anxiety, she pitches herself as the new heartland correspondent, a human guinea pig for New York’s cramped apartment dwellers who long to leave but can’t. Despite the trepidations of her urbanocentric peer and professional circles, she embarks to a land of affordable apartments where radio stations play little else but Peter Frampton. However, Trout’s regional experiment takes a surprising twist when she finds herself shacking up with Mason, an artsy slacker who bathes in a river and has three children by as many different women.

In the right light, Mason’s a dead ringer for her Sam Shepherd pastoral ideal. But upon their cohabitation in a farmhouse—compete with a horse, a pig and a dog named, yep, Sam Shepherd—Lucinda’s Little House on the Prairie fantasy spirals out of control. In short order, she becomes the de facto mother of Mason’s children while shouldering the financial responsibilities as her partner squanders his fortune on his methamphetamine habit.

Daum’s fans will be neither disappointed by nor ecstatic about her fiction debut. The narrative structure too often feels like an artifice for her musings. I couldn’t help but wish we could forgo the obligatory plot-driving characters and remain in Lucinda Trout’s head as she kicked it freestyle on the subjects of place, ambition and internecine middle-class mores.

The satire on display here is a bit more enjoyable than the characters themselves are. Coming up for skewering are the baby-boomer liberals of Lucinda’s book club who subscribe to the simplest of feminist politics while inflating the significance of their 1960s activism.

Those familiar with My Misspent Youth know that, like Lucinda Trout, Daum fled New York for the affordable hardwood floors of Lincoln, Neb. She is already adapting this novel for the screen, so it’s clear she’s a long way from the bohemian demon of imminent poverty, what Martin Amis aptly describes as “tramp dread.”

It’s hard to say if Daum and the novel are proper bedfellows. Many of the ideas explored in these pages could be more quickly and thoroughly excavated in her native essay form. But perhaps that’s the reductive quick fix, the sock-it-to-me cityspeak of a quick-to-pigeonhole critic. If even her flawed novels are this much fun, it will be a thrill to see whose lives she’ll report on next.