Hyde Park resident Thelma Adams knows and loves the movies. She's film critic for Us Weekly, and hosts the annual Amazing Women In Film panel at the Woodstock Film Festival. As her very California novel opens, the hills begin to burn, a box turtle awakens inside a Barbie Dream House, and an 11-year-old walks in on a classic primal scene. Astute readers might get the distinct impression that they're in for a red-hot and wildly comic ride, and astute readers would be right.
Our hero Lance is an at-home dad to Belle, unfortunate witness to the primal scene and owner of the aforementioned box turtle. She's turning 11, and is at a loss in the "finely calibrated scale of playground fabulousness" at Rancho Amigo Elementary (or "Raunchy Gringo Penitentiary," as a graffiti artist has opined on the signboard). Her family has recently relocated from laid-back Barstow, and Belle's having a tough time adjusting to faster and perhaps shallower waters.
To her father's credit, he devotes considerable concern to his daughter's plight. Between Tantric sessions with his neighbor Wren and utilitarian, stress-packed baby- making encounters with his wife, Darlene, he's running the Girl Scout Cookie drive. Despite the social stigma of being an at-home dad, his devotion to Belle is deep; this former surfer boy is likeable despite his flaws.
Darlene is a piece of work in her own right. As driven as Lance is phlegmatic, her business aspirations were the driving force behind the move that has left both her daughter and husband adrift. (Lance was a TV weatherman in Barstow; the larger markets here have no use for him). Darlene has stars in her eyes. A slick-talking businessman, who also happens to be Wren's husband, has convinced her to franchise the concept she had a hit with back in Barstow: a kid-centric diner with gourmet food and a bar/lounge for parents. Her original had soul and funk; under Slick Businessman's guidance, the franchise version seems in danger of resembling Chuck E. Cheese.
As the wildfire rages, it's crunch time for Darlene's ambitions. Opening day has been timed to coincide with Belle's 11th birthday. To suit Mommy's business agenda, underwhelmed but compliant Belle must tolerate a glam party with a Barbie cake and a live performance by Barry Beige and his Scary Monsters.
Against the many tensions pulling Lance and Darlene apart, Adams sets the very genuine underlying love that brought them together—and the abiding love both feel for their daughter. It's a sharply drawn tongue-in-cheek portrait of a family on the brink of chaos or epiphany, in a psychological pressure cooker that's reflected and amplified by the growing menace of the Witch Creek Fire.
Adams writes with cinematic flair, great visuals, and dialogue that zings. Interior glimpses of the characters reveal how sadly and yet hilariously far they are from comprehending one another's true feelings and motivations.
If there's any quibble to be had with this very enjoyable tale, it's that Adams's full-on pace engenders a few disconnects from reality: How exactly does a Barbie Dream House stay "pristine" with a box turtle living in it full-time? And is there actually a part of America where a restaurant can have a play area for kids and a bar side by side without being burned to the ground by DWI activists?
Regardless, the characters are good company and the story engaging, and the climactic denouement is a blast. Lance and Darlene manage to fumble their way back into love as Belle rediscovers her moxie. This Playdate makes learning fun.
Reading at Oblong Books & Music, Rhinebeck, January 29 at 7:30pm.