It’s easy for an author to get sucked into familiar tropes when writing about families; like venturing into a blind canyon, writers can stumble into cliches and have difficulty finding their way out. But with her latest novel, There’s a Word for That, Sloane Tanen is evidently undaunted by these common pitfalls, as she presents us with not one but two families with serious issues.
We first meet the Kesslers through Janine. A former child star on a wildly popular sitcom, she’s now in her early 40s and washed up. She’s still dependent on her beloved father, Marty, a just-as-washed-up Hollywood producer, and has no prospects. We first find her signing on for a cartoon-drawing class even though she can’t draw. Indeed, the class leads to one of her nastier humiliations in a lifetime of humiliations. Janine may have been the child star, but her late mother always preferred her beautiful sister, Amanda, now the soon-to-be-divorced mother of twins Jaycee and Hailey, who are replicating the same toxic sisterly dynamic as their mother and aunt.
Marty is a heroin addict. He doesn’t do anything as scuzzy as shoot up, but he does need his bumps once in a while, the same way he needs women. The latest is Gail, who is more of a minder than a lover and who probably isn’t as greedy as Janine thinks she is. Marty is Tanen’s great creation. Funny, big-hearted and still vigorous enough to make the reader imagine what he was like when he was firing on all thrusters, Marty is so charismatic that he can convince an attendant at the rehab center to sneak him a bottle of booze.
Speaking of rehab, the Directions Rehabilitation Center is where most of the novel takes place. With its beautiful landscapes, deluxe rooms, countless statues of the Buddha, simpering counselors and squillionaire clientele, the joint could only be in California.
One of the squillionaire clientele is Bunny Small, a bestselling British author with an oxymoronic name. The opposite of sweet and fluffy, Bunny is a lush and a harridan who’s alienated nearly everyone, including her brittle son, Henry. Only her devoted agent is left standing, and it is he who packs her off to Directions. And what d’you know, she’s there at the same time as her ex-husband, Marty Kessler. Not only that, but Henry and Janine meet and, rather too quickly, mate. (Rest assured, they’re not half-siblings.)
Like so many other books that capture the foibles of good-hearted but misguided folk, There’s a Word for That is often uproariously funny. Tanen’s skill is that you don’t laugh at the characters. Janine and Marty and Hailey and Henry and even Bunny know how messed up they are. All you, and they, can do is laugh at the straits they find themselves in and soldier on.