Fickle environment of self-help publishing
having an affair with a co-worker whom he has taken to calling ‘‘ work-wife’’.
Meanwhile Peter Herman, the invented author of the fictional self-help book, has lived off royalties since it was published in 1971, never writing another book and relying on his wife to save him from financial ruin.
Recently widowed, he is contacted by a young editor at his publisher named Stella. She has dreamed up a competition to celebrate the anniversary of Marriage is a Canoe: one struggling couple will get the chance to spend an afternoon with the author — and consequently save their relationship.
Stella imagines the success of this competition will make her career in publishing. Herman hopes it will provide him with a little money and another brush with fame. Emily thinks it will save her marriage, and give her a chance to meet the author whose voice she has imagined in her head since she was a girl.
Schrank’s novel, his third, frequently finds itself in the fickle world of New York publishing, a milieu he is familiar with as the publisher of Razorbill, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers. This insider’s view is one of the funnier aspects of the novel. There’s Helena, the ice-queen publisher, who says of Stella’s contest: ‘‘ I’ve turned bigger piles of bullshit into pots of tulips.’’
Peter, however, is a shambling, directionless man who wrote a marriage guide (that is excerpted within the novel) but who didn’t manage to stay in his own canoe: The cover of the book’s newest edition was a photograph of a couple’s hands intertwined. The sunlight behind them was red and gold and white, their glossy wedding bands
Peter is the wrong choice to fix anyone’s marriage but Emily and Eli are the stars of Love is a Canoe. Emily is excellent at explaining things but shy and uncomfortable with people: ‘‘ She understood that she had consciously chosen to inhabit a small world full of awkward people who freely admitted they’d rather work with objects than humans.’’
Eli, on the other hand, thrives on being the centre of attention and cares deeply about what others think of him. If only Stella and Peter were as well drawn, though at least Peter will come to recognise his own hubris. And if only everyone in this book didn’t speak as though they have escaped from a Judd Apatow script, as Eli does to Emily as they prepare to go to a party: glinting. What crap. He had never worn one. When Emily came out of their bedroom she was in a dark blue summer dress with white polka dots.
‘ You look hot,’ Eli said. ‘ Later you’ll put that dress up around your thighs and we’ll do our victory dance on a tabletop. You can flash your underpants at the boys.’
Is anyone really so glib? Stilted dialogue and flimsy characterisation can be forgiven, though. It is a tricky premise, writing a book within a book, especially when one falls into the self-help category.
Schrank does it without too much navelgazing, and with enough wit and warmth to keep the story afloat.