Among Maria Semple's credits from her years in television is a stint as a consulting producer on Arrested Development, a show filled with profoundly unlikeable characters. But their hatred for each other is consistently played for laughs, something that can't be said of Semple's debut novel, This One Is Mine, which lacks the comic sprightliness that might make the odiousness bearable.
Violet, a bored stay-at-home Mulholland Drive mom, meets a bass player named Teddy in the park and decides to run away with him, even though he doesn't seem that interested in being with her. (Plus he's already attached to a Kennedy.) Her husband, a world-renowned music executive, is as oblivious to this development as anything else in her life, though he's prone to flying into fits of rage when the house is out of order. His sister Sally—once a promising ballerina, now on a practically Jamesian mission to get married as soon as possible—has latched onto a nerdy statistician named Jeremy who's about to get his own TV spot.
These self-absorbed characters bobble around in their own invented malaise, never realizing how ridiculous they seem, but even their comically exaggerated unawareness, such as Sally's outsized exasperation at the friend who introduced Jeremy to her, becomes tiresome. Compounding their obtuseness, characters fall into lines of being either stupid or loathsome. At least the loathsome ones are entertaining, like Violet's pet bass player, a former drug addict whose refusal to sleep with her is infuriating, since it makes her realize she can't buy everything. Sally is unable to rein herself in even when her desire for attention threatens to capsize her relationship with Jeremy, who is depicted as an emotionless automaton totally taken in by her con. Scraping up sympathy for her later in the book is a chore, even as she expects it of Violet. A scene where a character experiences an epiphany from within the strictures of an unduly punishing yuppie yoga retreat is a comic delight, but it only highlights how flat the other inhabitants of this world tend to be. Maybe this collection of misanthropes just needs a few commercial breaks, but the inner anger that bubbles out at every opportunity makes them, even satirically, a pain to have around.