Meet your new best friend Sophie Applebaum of Surrey, Pennsylvania. She's smart, insightful and outrageously funny. She's also both self-assured and self-effacing (a rare and delightful combination). In other words, she's someone you'd like to spend some time with and get to know better. Sophie is the latest creation of best-selling author Melissa Bank, of The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing fame. Like that runaway hit, The Wonder Spot is the kind of book that is so laugh-out-loud hilarious you'll quote it to friends (wishing you could take credit for the witty one-liners). Composed of story-like sections, each focusing on an important point in Sophie's life, The Wonder Spot displays wisdom as well as humor.
Speaking to Bank from her New York apartment, with her dog whining and the sounds of the city in the background, it's hard not to think of her as interchangeable with Sophie. Bank has the same easy way about her, the same throaty laugh, that a reader imagines Sophie might have. After the huge success of Girls' Guide, Bank says she felt an obligation not to disappoint readers with her second novel. My publisher didn't pressure me, I wasn't worried in the usual way. What worried me was that I'd earned the trust of readers, and I didn't want to let people down, she says. With her gift for capturing the moment, Bank has returned with a book, dare I say, even better than the much-loved Girls' Guide. When we're first introduced to Sophie, she's a preteen who already stands out from the pack. Bank captures perfectly what it feels like to be an outsider looking in. As the book progresses, over the course of two decades, we watch Sophie evolve as she comes into adulthood, and into her own. After attending an unimpressive college (she's bright but not a stellar student), Sophie moves to New York where she teaches herself how to type, a Herculean endeavor, and lands a job in publishing and later advertising. She's not the most ambitious employee, which somehow makes her even more endearing. (She tells a friend, The good thing about being nowhere in your career is that you can do it anywhere. ) We travel with her as she navigates the often perilous terrain of work and relationships, and relationships that need work. The Wonder Spot is as much the story of Sophie's family as it is her own, and we see the Applebaums weather life's ups and downs, experiencing their share of grief and happiness. Part of Sophie's search for identity involves seeing her parents as people, apart from their role as mother and father. As an adolescent, Sophie feels that her mother is uniquely, painfully annoying. When being teased by the cool girls at school, known as the Foxes, Sophie says, I'd known my mother couldn't help; she pronounced clique the French way, CLEEK, and would just tell me that the Foxes were jealous and ignore them. It is only later that she comes to know and appreciate her mother in a different way.
Generally girls and women are so much easier on their fathers than they are on their mothers, Bank observes. Sophie wants to be more like her father than her mother. Her father is so self-possessed . . . I don't know, but I imagine that girls always have felt like they'd do anything not to be their mothers. In my generation there was almost a social mandate not to be like your mother, she says.
Of marriage, Bank muses, It's not a goal anymore for women the way it once was. I think a lot of women still really do want to get married, but I think a lot of women also just want to find a good place in the world. Your life certainly isn't over if you don't get married. Sophie's grandmothers wouldn't agree and endlessly harasses Sophie about settling down, in scenes that are some of the funniest in the book. When asked if she was drawing from her own life, Bank says emphatically, I absolutely am. Grandmothers are supposed to be just loving bundles of appreciation; mine were nightmares. Bank also writes with sensitivity about relationships with friends. We see some pass through Sophie's life while others stay. There's no real mechanism to end a friendship, Bank says. It's not like you break up easily with a friend. You both decide, well, we're moving on. There's something so uneasy about ending a friendship, especially with a childhood friend. One of the many refreshing things about The Wonder Spot is that it doesn't follow a formula girl meets boy, girl and boy fall in love, boy and girl get married and live happily ever after. It's more open-ended and true to life. The title of the novel refers to a Brooklyn diner that Sophie visits, but Bank was inspired by a postcard she came across almost 20 years ago. It was a card from the '30s picturing a bench with a sign above it shaped like a glider, and the words Wonder Spot written on it. The sign offered an invitation to sit down in that place.
Bank explains, I like the whole concept of a wonder spot,' and I feel like a lot of the stories are about that. There's something that happens, or a revelation, where Sophie sees herself or sees what's going on, or realizes something, or has a feeling of just belonging on the planet. She goes through so much trouble, those wonder spots' are sort of what she gets as a reward. Bank notes that, throughout the novel, Sophie doesn't have a religious identity, or one she gets from work, or from a boyfriend. It's not about looking at yourself from the outside but about being yourself, the author says. It's also about the connections we make with others, whether it be a family member, friend or romantic interest.
The Wonder Spot proves to be an apt title in another sense: Bank's perfect marksmanship, her ability to hit the bull's-eye, sometimes with just one turn of phrase, in her portraits of Sophie and those around her. It's a pleasure to meet them all, especially Sophie, a keen observer of life's absurdities and truths. Katherine Wyrick lives in Little Rock.