Comedy is serious business
The thing about good comedy and silliness, the kind that endures, is that it takes a truly accomplished, adaptable author to pull it off, all the while making it look easy. Ron Hansen, the acclaimed author of such serious literary works as Mariette in Ecstasy, has given us the gift of well-wrought fun in Isn't it Romantic?, a literary confection he spun, in part, out of his own need for levity after the tragedies of 9/11. And what better way to deliver this ode to the charm, strangeness and warm familiarity of "normal" America than through the eyes of an equally charming outsider? Natalie Clairvaux, a beautiful young Parisian woman with a love for all things American, has chosen an atypical vacation America by sightseeing bus. Her tour features such thrilling sights as Goodyear's World of Rubber in Ohio, Herbert Hoover's birthplace in Iowa and the home of the grandmother who won the Tiniest Handwriting Contest a far cry from the typical European tourist's itinerary of "shopping in New York" and "Mickey Mouse in Orlando," as her French travel agent puts it. And these quaintly unusual, mundane curiosities are, for Natalie, the antidote to the polish of trips to Avignon or Aix with her snobby fiancÅ½, Pierre. They remind her of tales told by her grandmother, Sophie, who thought of the American soldiers stationed in her town during WWII as movie stars. When Pierre tracks Natalie down in Nebraska, looking around him with the ticks and sneers of a royal among peasants, they quarrel and set a deadline to decide whether they should marry after all. At that, Natalie and her red-wheeled suitcase march off into the dust toward the town of Seldom (pop. 395), and Pierre has no choice but to follow her. In Seldom, our travelers happen upon the local diner the beehive-like hub of the town's quirky but lively social activity and are quickly installed as the King and Queen of the annual "Revels," a festival to honor the town's French founder, Bernard LeBoeuf. Pierre is ushered off by Owen, Nebraska's only master vintner, and Natalie is whisked away to the local no-men-allowed boardinghouse by Marvyl Christiansen, the local retired French teacher. Here ensues a true culture clash, full of all the romance, confusion and poetry that comes when sophistication meets true salt-of-the-earth charm. As Natalie is politely pursued by Dick Tupper, a Byronesque cattle rancher, Pierre is tempted by Iona, local beauty and diner waitress who is secretly coveted by Carlo Bacon, the diner's cook. Friendships form quickly and seamlessly amid misunderstandings, secret plots, high hopes and injured feelings. It is the Revels, after all, and throughout the story, there is a kind of whirling, flirtatious vividness to life in Seldom and its unpredictable inhabitants. Without giving one delicious crumb of the plot away, I will say that this mingling of cultures and personalities produces much humor, beauty and simply delightful humanity. For those who would sample this sweet story and find it too sugary, I say lighten up, pour it over your diner pancakes and dig in. Sarah Goodrum writes from Nashville.