Vol. 1 No. 4 2008


Seize the Irony

Can a "change" executive find true fulfillment in a quick switch to "soccer mom" mode?

Carpool Diem

By Nancy Star

(New York: 5 Spot, 2008)
Trade Paperback Original
ISBN: 0-446-58182-8
$13.99/ 336 pages

Reviewed by Madeleine Mysko

photo nancy star

I wonder why I opened Nancy Star’s Carpool Diem in the first place. It couldn’t have been the front cover (on which the protagonist of the novel is described as a “soccer mom” dealing with “Ambition, Backstabbing, Politics”), because ordinarily I wouldn’t give ten minutes to the subject of soccer moms, except maybe to a scorching essay on the psychological traumas in store for children pushed into competitive sports, and maybe not even then.

Perhaps it was the back cover (on which the author is described as “a former movie executive turned novelist.” Novelist? Well we shall see about that . . . )

Never mind, because open the novel I did, and on page one was taken up by the quick, easy prose of Nancy Star, former movie executive turned novelist. And I kept on reading, just for the fun of it and in spite of resistant myself.

Star is one of those writers who hangs in close, an implied author winking at the reader just beyond the shoulder of her unwitting protagonist, as if to say “Don’t you just love it?” You can’t help but hang with this implied author, because she’s smart and witty. You laugh and keep on reading because suddenly you feel rather smart and witty yourself, even though Carpool Diem is such an easy read.

Carpool Diem is a clever title—catchy and mnemonic. Actually there isn’t a whole lot about carpooling in the story, but a clever reader will forgive, because the pun on the Latin imperative is still funny. If ever there was a protagonist made comically vulnerable by her propensity for seizing the day it’s the protagonist of this novel—Annie Fleming, corporate executive turned soccer mom.

Should Jane Austen be looking over my shoulder at this moment, I hope she won’t blanche at the comparison I’m about to make: Annie Fleming reminds me a bit of Catherine Morland, the naïve heroine of Northanger Abbey. Like Miss Morland, Annie Fleming is a character with an endearing flaw: her chipper self-confidence. She’s mistaken in her belief that she has it all down pat, and until she actually does get it all down pat—in the end—the reader is treated to the even bigger mess she can make of a the plot she’s walked into.

From the humorous start, Star strikes a point of view right down the middle between satire and sympathy with respect to her protagonist, Annie, who is “a change specialist, after all . . . expert at spinning events so that even unexpected, unwelcome changes could be perceived as good,” or so she thinks. An unexpected, unwelcome change is bearing down on Annie’s executive life—expected by everyone in the boardroom (including the delighted reader, who perceives what’s coming as deliciously not good)—and meanwhile Annie is confidently sizing up the players on the field: Biblow, the shifty-eyes mentor who keeps promising “the infuriatingly elusive carrot of partnership,” the equally shifty-eyed CEO Crawford, and the founder Pederson “who spent most of his work days at the golf course now, trying to improve his stroke and handicap before he had one and got one.”

Annie thinks she’s on top of her game, but then Crawford looks up from his Blackberry: “Annie, the word on you has always been that you’re a team player. But I have to ask—is the word wrong?” And therein lies the ironic set-up: Annie Fleming, former star on the executive team finds herself unemployed, riding home on the train—“the first time she’d ever taken a morning train home. Who were these people? She wondered. What would they do? What would she do?”

What would she do, indeed. The smart play that Star executes here is in the subjective point of view. Annie may be comically clueless, but she’s the loveable underdog now. With her self-confidence knocked slightly askew, she dusts off her corporate uniform (navy suit and “crisp white shirt”), packs up her personal possessions, and heads determinedly home, photographs of her husband and daughter clutched to her breast. Unemployed now, “no-quitting-allowed” attitude leads her straight into the sort of trouble good satire is made of. She actually thinks she can apply that winning attitude of hers to managing her daughter’s soccer team.

Enter the antagonist, the ridiculously aggressive soccer coach Winslow West, for whom the reader can have absolutely no sympathies of course. Sprinkled throughout the novel are short chapters consisting of West’s “Power Pointers,” his newsletters to the players and their parents. If you prefer your satire ratcheted up to the obvious, look no further than these missives loaded with exaggerated dramatic irony, clichés, and exclamation points in triplicate.

Here is West delivering one of his “Aggressive Play Reminders”: “I urge you . . . to view the yellow card as a form of tribute to aggressive play! The next time a ref shows you a yellow card, accept is as the compliment it really is!!!” West is pretty much a cartoon cut-out, the necessary device (!!!).

Only a character like Annie would unwittingly set herself (and her perfectly normal daughter) in the path of an obvious villain like Coach West. Only a character like Annie would let herself get knocked down so predictably, chapter after chapter. Somehow you can’t help but cheer for her, because like her forbear, the naïve Miss Morland, she really does figure out what the rest of us could see at the start of the game: that aggressive coaches and pushy parents are just plain idiots. Who doesn’t like a character like Annie Fleming, on her way to the Soccer-Plex with her To-Do List, cooler of Gatorade, and shopping bag filled with snacks? She makes you feel so smart that you laugh.

Madeleine Mysko is a novelist and freelance writer living in Towson, Maryland

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