I enjoyed Shannon Olson’s first book so much that I decided to buy her latest novel myself rather than wait to read it on my next trip to Minnesota (the authors home state and setting of her stories) to visit my in-laws. It was worth it. It is a unique, funny, touching, and thought provoking book about being single and trying to find your place in the world.
It might come as a surprise that I was able to relate to the character in the book. After all, the lead character – a semi-fictionalized Shannon Olson – is a single woman trying to break free from the orbit of her mother while I am a happily married man who hasn’t been that close to his family since junior high (my parents are divorced and live far away). I do share a small connection with Olson in that my wife’s family are from Minnesota and share much of the state’s quirky nature. But while Olson is seeking companionship and meaning as a single person and through therapy, I have been married for almost ten years and think of psychology as just up from astrology. Olson is Catholic, I am firmly Protestant.
Clearly we are not exactly analogous. But it is equally obvious that good books rise above characters that are just like you. What Olson is struggling with is her place in the world and what it means. She struggles with insecurity, laziness, dealing with family, adult friendships, finding a career not just a job, etc. All of these things are issues that a great many people can relate to no matter what their exact circumstances. Olson migh push things farther than some of us, but this only helps to highlight their importance. She uses wit and emotion to bring them into stark relief so that we can wrestle with them and think about them more clearly.
The fact that it is in the form of a novel makes it that much easier. Olson is not bound by strict reality and the reader feels slightly more removed from the potentially raw emotions and issues. But this is not an ordinary novel, or at least a plot driven one, but rather a story told largely internally. The converstions with other are important but the real focus is her own internal dialogue.
In the book, Olson is single and working at a small marketing firm while living in the city by herself. As she grows older the panic over being single grows. Everyone else is getting married and buying a home; her younger sister has a baby! Olson finds herself stuck: living in a hopelessly messy apartment; eating frozen pizzas and McDonald’s while watching Frazier reruns and Oprah tapes; in a passive aggressive relationship with her mother; bored at work; and in a rut in therapy. She try’s a variety of new things to break out: group therapy, a psychiatrist who can proscribe medication for her panic attacks, blind dates, even Church with her dad. But it seems the harder she tries the worse it gets. Her compulsive sarcasm and self-doubt combine for at times hilarious, but mostly melancholy, adventures with those around her.
The story gets serious, however, when her best friend Adam gets cancer just as they were very awkwardly exploring what exactly their relationship meant. Olson is trying to wrestle with whether or not Adam could be more than just a friend and at the same time dealing with a drunken pass when Adam is suddenly facing his own mortality. This really forces Olson to focus on the self-inflicted roadblocks she is throwing up. As the story closes you feel like the melancholy and darkness is beginning to lift and happiness is a real possibility.
I happen to have a soft spot for melancholy and soul searching. Olson is able to walk the fine line between melancholy and pathos; between struggle and despair. She uses humor and sarcasm to take the edge off. Her characters deal with serious issues but they seem real and balanced too. They aren’t simply caricatures or one dimensional symbols. I found the book enjoyable to read and thought provoking without being too heavy or deep. While I certainly don’t approach life the way Olson the character does, I appreciate the skill of Olson the author in communicating the feelings and issues involved. I suppose if you are single and depressed about it the issue might cut a little deeper but it goes out on a happy note.
Children of God Go Bowling is light hearted reading that nevertheless deals with real issues in a humorous way. It might not change your life or your mind but it is enjoyable and intelligent. That ought to be worth something these days.