Three womenone thirtysomething and childless, one teenaged and pregnant, and one less-than-zero and fetalnarrate Kim Addonizio's debut novel, Little Beauties. The plot may sound unbearably chick-lit, and at times the story teeters on the verge of saccharine. But it never falls victim to its genre, and that's a testament to Addonizio's sure ear for language and her poet's sense of minimalist emotion. Already an award-winning author and Guggenheim Fellowship recipient on the strength of her poetry collections, Addonizio may have found her true calling in fiction. She sketches characters with detailed yet spare strokes, bringing them to life through dialogue heavy on mundane chitchat interspersed with internal commentary that reveals the gulf between their social and private selves.
That gulf yawns widest in the case of Diana McBride, a baby-store clerk who washes compulsively and senses creeping contamination in all of her surroundings. Playing the part of the model employee (a role she creates to universal acclaim, thanks to her tendency to move on to new apartments and jobs before her disorder becomes evident), she makes helpful motions toward Jamie Ramirez, a pregnant teenager who buys a teddy bear at Diana's store even though she plans to give the child up for adoption. But when Jamie decides to keep the baby and run away from her disapproving mother, she latches onto Diana for housing and support. There's no room for a messy, unpredictable infant in Diana's life, even though her apartment sits half-empty now that her longsuffering husband has moved out. The dozens of rules governing dirt, bathing, clean zones, laundry separation, and similar manifestations of her obsessive-compulsive disorder aren't baby-friendly, and she's long since off her meds, estranged from her therapist, and unable to cope with her martyred mother. But Diana the former child-pageant contestant, Jamie the high-school dropout, and Stella the infant find that co-dependence isn't nearly as awful as the self-help books make it out to be.
Stella's contributions to the triptych of narrative voices in Little Beauties are the diciest. As she reminisces about the Before and the Light (complete with capitals) and reveals a pre-conception connection with the dead wife of Anthony, the man who assists at her Mercedes-backseat birth, Stella's voice strains under the weight of too much New Age backstory and innocent wisdom, and the book threatens to become as precious as its premise might suggest. But in spite of her characters' grab-bag of quirks, Addonizio keeps her story grounded in real feelings by showing how the women push those quirks out of public view, maintaining competent façades to mask the disappointment trickling down from previous generations. A page-turning read that earns its wellspring of emotion at the end, Little Beauties introduces a new Kim Addonizio, a writer who was born to tell funny, heartbreaking stories.