by Leanne Phillips
Marcy Dermansky’s new novel, Very Nice, starts out with a simple enough premise. Nineteen-year-old Rachel has a crush on her creative writing professor, Zahid Azzam, a one-hit wonder of a novelist who has been skating on the success of his only book for years. When Zahid impulsively confides to Rachel that he’s had a bad day, she impulsively kisses him. But the plot gains in complexity from there. Anyone who’s seen The Wife knows that crushes on creative writing professors don’t end well, and there are red flags that Rachel chooses to ignore. Rachel’s passion for Zahid seems lukewarm at best, and Rachel is a bit taken aback when he calls their kiss “very nice”—during the semester, he had crossed out all of the verys in her short story.
Rachel doesn’t turn in her final short story for the term, but Zahid agrees to give her a passing grade if she watches his apricot standard poodle over summer break while he visits his dying grandmother in Pakistan. Rachel takes the dog home to the Connecticut suburbs, and her mother, Becca, who recently lost her own snow-white standard poodle, quickly adopts this new poodle of color as her own.
The story both veers and takes off when Zahid unexpectedly returns within a couple of weeks and travels to Connecticut to retrieve his dog. Having sublet his apartment for the summer, he has nowhere to stay. Partly because she’s become attached to his poodle, and partly because she thinks he has beautiful eyes, Becca invites Zahid to stay with her and Rachel. Living with a student who has unrequited feelings for him is awkward, as is the growing attraction between Zahid and his student’s accommodating mother, a “beautiful woman with a big, beautiful house.” But Zahid believes his genius entitles him to get by on the kindness of strangers. He decides Connecticut is the perfect place to finally write a second novel.
Very Nice starts out feeling like a fun summer read, fast-paced, with short, crisp sentences. There are boundaries in polite society, and everyone in this book is crossing them. But the novel gradually delves into much darker territory. The book is told in the first person from alternating points of view: Rachel, Becca, Zahid, Jonathan (Rachel’s father and Becca’s ex-husband), and Khloe, the young woman subletting Zahid’s apartment. Jonathan is a Wall Street financier who supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 and is pissed off that she lost the election. He’s left Becca for a young, female pilot, Mandy, named after the Barry Manilow song. Becca is a schoolteacher who is matter-of-fact about the school shooting she narrowly prevented earlier in the year, but her confidence in herself as a woman has taken a hit. Khloe is a lesbian who is obsessively in love with her former babysitter and who has been able to infiltrate the world of high finance because she doesn’t look black or gay. Like a perverse Love Actually, the characters’ lives are unknowingly interwoven and heading toward a surprising moment of truth.
Dermansky doesn’t offer moralizing or solutions so much as a screen capture of the overwhelming number of issues young people are confronted with today: gender bias, misogyny, racism, gun control, school shootings, global warming, immigration bans, homophobia, adultery, child sexual abuse, white privilege, materialism, narcissism … whew! Dermansky even touches on male disgust with period sex and “the rules, the games women [are] supposed to play”—Rachel believes she has to “come up with a reason” to say no to sex. At first, I thought the author was trying to cover way too much ground, but I soon realized she had created a depressingly accurate snapshot of the world and the things people are bombarded with daily. We, as readers, get the feeling there is much more under the surface with each one of these issues, more that we don’t get to see. We see enough to feel disturbed—sometimes mildly and sometimes deeply—and maybe that’s the author’s intent. We should feel disturbed. Rachel considers these things as if at a distance, but she doesn’t seem to have many opinions of her own about them.
Very Nice riffs on Republicans, Democrats, Trump. Even Twitter. Divorced, workaholic dads trying to recapture youth through affairs with much younger women. Divorced moms so desperate for male attention that they consciously choose bad relationships over relationships with their children. Particularly enjoyable is the novel’s swipe at the literary community: writers who work at jobs they hate in order to support themselves; gifted writers, like Zahid, to whom it all comes easily (“working really hard [is] bullshit”); writers who haven’t experienced enough of life to have stories of their own and who appropriate the stories of others; writers’ programs where, according to Zahid, there was a lot of sex happening, and “[s]ometimes there was writing.”
As for Rachel, she wrote her first short story when she was in second grade, and she has always wanted to be a writer. She shows promise and talent. But if her writing isn’t brilliant, she’d rather not write at all, and the adults in her life, even the creative writing teacher who is being paid to nurture her talent, are too wrapped up in their own lives to offer her any encouragement. Rachel is caught in a rip current that eddies around her, and we don’t get to know Rachel so much as we get to know the irresponsible adults who have contributed to making her the impassive young woman she is. Rachel is detached, even from us, and by the end of the novel, we realize it’s no wonder. On its surface, Very Nice is a sexy romp through the maelstroms of the East Coast suburbs, Wall Street, and the Midwest literary community. But at its heart, Very Nice proves to be a contemporary coming-of-age novel with a female protagonist as alienated and angst-ridden as Holden Caulfield.
Very Nice is Marcy Dermansky’s fourth novel. Her previous novels, The Red Car, Bad Marie, and Twins, all received critical acclaim.
Leanne Phillips is a writer based on California’s Central Coast. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, The Coachella Review, and elsewhere. You can find her at leannephillips.com.