“All I can think about is escape.
“First come the opening volley of mimosas and some light chit chat about the weather. Then our wedge salads arrive, signalling the commencement of mild gossip about people we all hate. Suddenly, as I bite into a crisp piece of iceberg lettuce, I cease being Mrs Maxine Hortence Simmons, the elegant thirty-six-year-old wife of noted airline executive Douglas Simmons. I am still physically at this table in the sunroom of the Palm Springs Thunderbird Country Club, and yet my body and soul have undergone a total upheaval.”
Meet Maxine Simmons, the protagonist (and one of three narrators) of Mr & Mrs American Pie, the debut novel by screenwriter Juliet McDaniel.
Set in 1969, the novel uses Maxine’s trials and tribulations to explore concepts of social acceptance and family values in a far more conservative era.
As the novel opens, 36-year-old Maxine is traded for the 22-year-old office secretary. Up until she is unceremoniously dumped by husband Douglas on Thanksgiving Day, Maxine’s claim to fame was winning a beauty pageant and Douglas on the same night back in the day. Up until that unfortunate Thanksgiving meal, Maxine’s life has been almost picture perfect.
As the gravity of what Douglas has done sinks in, Maxine has a very public meltdown in a posh restaurant. The life that Maxine knew – being a wife, a socialite with a past (and a bit of a drinking problem) and a (seemingly) secure set-up with Douglas – all comes crashing down in the most humiliating (and, arguably, cliched) of ways.
Within the first chapter, Maxine goes from dining in elegant Palm Springs restaurants to being exiled to her condo unit in unfashionable Scottsdale, Arizona.
And from Scottsdale, Maxine decides to fight her way back. To claim back what marriage had stolen from her, Maxine sets her eyes on a new crown: that of Mrs American Pie, awarded to America’s best wife and mother. However, to enter the pageant, Maxine must have a husband and a family – and she has neither right now.
Fuelled by the injustice of it all (and emboldened by copious amounts of pills and alcohol), Maxine returns to Palm Springs and joins forces with Robert, her favourite bartender who is also a confirmed bachelor (ie, he’s gay), to create the perfect American family. And who’s to be the child in this perfectly fake family? That falls to Maxine’s neighbour’s precocious 13-year-old, Charlie.
Told from the points of view of Maxine, Robert and Charlie in turn, Mr & Mrs American Pie is, on the surface, hilarious, but it has an undertow of poignancy and a subtle sense of seriousness that can be quite thought-provoking once the hilarity fades.
McDaniel tackles some less-than-comfortable topics, such as being a single woman on the wrong side of 30, being a single woman who has no desire to have children (or to be remarried, as is Maxine’s case), being gay in a less tolerant time. All of these topics are tackled using humour, which works well, as the message that McDaniel is projecting is that life is not as black and white as some parts of society likes it to be, and that sometimes, when life is being unceremonious, the only thing you can do is get on, one wobbly step at a time. If you have a friend or two to help you get through the turbulence, all the better. Also, alcohol and being loud and obnoxious sometimes helps as well.
As Maxine stumbles forward on the quest for the Mrs American Pie crown, McDaniel not-so-subtly insinuates that the concept of family is often times more logical than biological. With Robert and Charlie, Maxine discovers what family means to her, even if her makeshift family does not fit in with what society deems acceptable.
Using unpretentious language – McDaniel has a knack for stringing subtly humorous sentences together – the novel is laugh-out-loud funny, poignant, and lyrical. In short, Mr & Mrs American Pie is the perfect read for the summer.
Mr & Mrs American Pie
Author: Juliet McDaniel
Publisher: Inkshares, fiction