In Rochelle Jewel Shapiro's thoroughly charming debut novel, Miriam the Medium, phone psychic Miriam Kaminsky takes calls from her Great Neck, New York, home office, offering clairvoyance and heartfelt advice for a fee. She comes from a long line of psychics, including her Russian grandmother "Bubbie," who although dead, still hovers around Miriam like a watchful fairy godmother (or a pesky gnat, depending on Bubbie's mood at the moment). Though she deftly steers her clients through the perils of life, Miriam can't seem to get her own spiritual house in order. Her husband's pharmacy teeters on the edge of bankruptcy, and her teenaged daughter, Cara, has morphed from a sweet-natured, highly motivated student into a sullen stranger who mocks her mother's special talents.
Miriam has never quite fit in with her preppy, white-collar neighbors, and she keeps her career as a psychic quiet. But the Kaminskys are in need of a major cash infusion, and more and more, Miriam finds herself having to advertise her talents. She begins accepting clients of seriously dubious distinction, including a mobster who may or may not have a heart of gold.
Her grandmother always warned her against going for the gelt, using her gift for show or greed. But, desperate to help her husband, Miriam embarks on a plan to expand her business through national television exposure. What happens can only be summed up as unmitigated disaster, and Miriam's family threatens to pull apart at the seams. For once, her psychic gifts can't help her.
You don't have to believe in magic to be enchanted by Miriam the Medium, a quirky, shimmering tale from start to finish. It's a book about psychics, yes, but it eschews the self-conscious mysticism that makes so many contemporary works of fiction hard to swallow. Instead, it's just plain funny. Shapiro, a clairvoyant herself, smartly conveys the struggles of finding one's true calling with or without the help of a fairy godmother.
Amy Scribner writes from Olympia, Washington.