Everyone’s got a book in them, and Frank Widdicombe, a Bainbridge Island paterfamilias, has determined that he will write one titled “The Widdicombe Way,” detailing the personal qualities that made him one of the nation’s finest tennis pros. His wife, Carol, a sort of Lady Grantham cum C.Z. Guest, wiles away her time curating various rooms in their home, while their son, Christopher, languishes and longs for the hotel porter he seduced in Albania.
To Evan James’ bag of mixed nuts in “Cheer Up, Mr. Widdicombe” add the spicy Gracie Sloane, Carol’s friend and a lifestyle guru finishing her own new book, “The Habit of Wildness;” the soothing Michelle, Carol’s personal assistant; more-than-slightly pickled family friend Bradford; and hoary Marvelous Matthews, local landscape gardener who has fallen under Gracie’s spell. It’s a comedy of Northwest manners, as if “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” had been written after a long alcoholic weekend, an exquisite corpse cobbled together by a raucous, sophisticated group of writing instructors.
But does it add up to anything coherent? Maybe not. Supposedly depressed Frank writes snippy emails to a friend with a country home in France, angry that he’s been knocked off the annual schedule. Carol considers grocery lists and table settings with such disaffection she makes Frank look downright cheery; it’s almost impossible to figure out if she’s empty inside or just enraged. “Slender, disheveled” Rhode Island School of Design student Christopher’s hilarious attempts to forge an artistic style (he wants to be tacky, but actually paints very well) are promising but fizzle as he becomes more interested in a new boyfriend, Jens.
But then things start to make sense: As the members of the Family Widdicombe spin off in their own directions, the people around them are spinning toward one another in different combinations. Their machinations are the point of this debut novel, as frothy and bitter as a pot of freshly brewed dark-roast coffee, the kind that’s always available on the Widdicombe’s sideboard.
And the dialogue, oh how it singes and sears! An early conversation about Carol’s wish for chickens dances into a disquisition on fowl sex habits before you’ve even stopped laughing about her dizzy ways. “This family, I’ve decided, needs to start having more fun. Isn’t that what life’s all about?” she says. Christopher has the last word: “I hate talking about fun ... and I hate the very idea of fun. Talking about fun, and the idea of fun, are no fun at all.”
Perhaps no fun - but very funny. “The Widdicombe Way” turns out to be a pursuit of winning that sends characters in unexpected directions. Instead of luxury, they take to the woods (Marvelous and Gracie). Instead of solitude, they wind up entwined (Christopher and ... well, no spoilers). Instead of empty affluence, they discover new ways to connect (Frank and Carol and others). James is a writer to watch, one with a fresh take on American flaws and virtues that nevertheless feels old-school screwball.