Review: Shopgirl

Steve Martin released this novella, Shopgirl, in 2000 well before he wrote Born Standing Up, but there is considerable similarity between them.  In both cases, the work is thoughtful and well executed, but strangely unmoving.  However, Born Standing Up relates a particular man’s singular experience becoming a unique entertainer while Shopgirl sticks much closer to the everyday.  As a result, there is less to divert the reader from the inertia.

After saying that Martin has trouble building up an emotional punch, I cannot really lay my fingers on what is missing.  There are characters with motivations and back stories, a strong sense of place, clear economical prose with a distinct voice, observations on people from different times of life and how they relate.  This should rise into a nice cake; but it doesn’t, and I don’t know why.

I have read a lot of books that provoked strong dislike.  Shopgirl was not one of those. None of the characters grated on me; the arc of the plot seemed plausible; the messages and themes were fine.  When I caught Martin making a temporally unlikely connection between one character’s involvement in the Vietnam war and another’s upbringing, I was paying enough attention to catch it, and I just more or less let it slide.  The narrative was pulling me along well enough that I did not begrudge him a little missed math.

Still, when I closed the book, I did not care about the journey these folks had been through.

It is difficult to fault someone for writing a well executed novel that lacks an undefinable quality, but that’s what I have to do with Shopgirl.

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