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Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2011

Christine Todd's 'Pins' Sticks It to Controlling Men

Whimsy, humor and anger drive debut novel

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Molly Makepeace Jamison, a mid-30s Chicago-area suburbanite, wakes in the morning to find her husband, Bob, dead in bed beside her, one day after learning that he has been having “illicit nooners” with a friend named Shirley. Molly is shocked, of course, but also feeling guilty, because she thinks she may be responsible for his death.

This is because after making the discovery Molly, inspired by hearing the female-empowerment song “Voodoo Woman's Anthem” on the radio, had run out to a voodoo-objects store and bought dolls, one representing Bob and the other Shirley, and pins to stick in them. Shirley escaped unscathed, it would seem, but “Bob went to bed fine and woke up dead.”

Thus does Pins (Red Anemone Books), the sprightly debut novel by former Wisconsin resident Christine Todd, hit the ground running. It keeps up a lively pace for about half of its length, and then gradually turns somewhat solemn, going from humorous revenge on the order of First Wives Club to a Lifetime movie themed “What Was That Man Thinking?”—and not necessarily to its advantage.

Not surprisingly, it turns out that Bob died not of a pin through his brain, but of an aneurysm. This is a relief to Molly and probably also to Jonathan Wilson, the detective investigating what might be a suspicious death that almost immediately points to the fetching widow.

Todd is a witty writer and creates interesting situations. The ashes from Bob's cremation get lost in the mail, ending up in—you guessed it—the dead letter office.

Todd is also good at delineating characters and their motivations—including Molly's. Weeks later she continues to anguish over why Bob did what he did. Bob has a brother Clarence, a smug, self-righteous evangelical minister, who is totally unlike him except in being a hypocrite and a “blood bully.”

But it is Bob's character that undergoes the greatest scrutiny. The discovery of his infidelity, and then his death, forces Molly into the realization that she has always been under his thumb, subject to his criticism. Bob forced her to merge her nascent advertising agency into his, for instance, thereby adding to a gradual eroding of her independence.

Like her late mother, her father's first wife, Molly has never been able to be wrathful. Also like her mother, she rushes to cooperate even when she would prefer to say “no.” Her father, an infuriating person and an emotionally wily player of despicable mind games, reminds her of Bob. She tells him he tries to make everything her fault, just as he did with her mother and just as Bob did.

There is a lengthy sub-motif about Molly's writing. It consists of cutesy features for a gardening magazine on topics like “Flowers That Look Like Their Owners,” a genre not as journalistically stupendous as Molly and the novel make it out to be.

Todd is generally a capable writer, though she is overly fond of backing into sentences with “ing” or “ed” participial phrases—“watching Shirley and her shiny new SUV,” “sliding out of the driver's seat,” “unused to taking orders.” Over time this becomes irritating.

Pins
is, despite its whimsy and humor, an extended, angry meditation on Molly trying to figure out why she stuck with Bob. Toward the end, as she inwardly rages for dozens of pages over the controlling ways of Bob, his brother and her father, this grows wearisome. We get the idea. Indeed, the last few chapters begin to sound like a self-help book on “How to Become a More Self-Confident You.” “I won't settle for less,” Molly tells herself. “I'm not happy when I do.”

She has escaped being a male-suppressed woman only to become a self-absorbed “Thirtyish Urban Professional.” This apparently is not what the author planned, or maybe even realizes has happened, but then it is not at all unusual for characters to flee their creator's control and go off in unintended directions.