Kirsten Mortensen’s New Novel

Paleo Retiree writes:


When Libby Met the Fairies and her Whole Life Went Fae” by friend-of-this-blog Kirsten Mortensen is like a chicklit version of a Tom Perrotta or Nick Hornby novel — a likable, touching and appreciative seriocomic look at human-scale lives and (mostly) familiar predicaments. It’s a lightweight, quickly-read entertainment, but it’s something a little more than that too.

Let me make a confession that will no doubt wreck my otherwise unassailable Alpha-male status: Over the years I’ve looked at a lot of chicklit. Hey, a new literary genre was a-borning — and how often do you get a chance to witness that? Plus: I’ve learned a lot about women by sampling the entertainment that many of them enjoy. (The two chicklit novels I can sincerely recommend — Mortensen’s book makes three — are two of the genre’s earliest entries: Laura Zigman’s “Animal Husbandry” and Helen Fielding’s “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” They’re genuinely fun.) The good side of chicklit: it’s a fine platform for talented ladies who want to show off their charm, their brains, their style and their spirit. Some of the bad sides of chicklit, at least as the commercial-publishing world often puts it out there: the books do get formulaic; they peddle and cater to narcissism, not the most endearing of traits; and the character types you run into are limited and predictable. How many sassy and amazing “Sex in the City”-style groups-of-friends can one world bear?

Mortensen’s novel, which is indie-published, brings a lot of freshness to the table. Its story is a whimsical romcom tale of attempted rebirth, but it has an errant, wobbly distinctiveness. Her heroine Libby — a recently-divorced biologist who’s hoping to make a new life for herself as an organic farmer — is a smart and resourceful modern woman, but she’s also got a lot of plain-Jane, nice-girl qualities too, as well as a nerdy and ditzy side. (Not an unusual combo, I’ve found. You may have grown up and gone to school with girls like Libby — I certainly did.) And Mortensen has given the book an unusual setting: the action takes place in western New York State, and the regional details are a joy. You can’t get much further from the world of “Sex in the City” than Dansville, N.Y. (Trust me on this — I grew up a few miles from Dansville.)

Mortensen is charmingly persuasive about what a mess day-to-day life tends to be — about the way, no matter how streamlined and focused our intentions, we inevitably wind up floundering our way through — as well as about women’s internal processes: the rhythms and patterns of how they feel, think, and sense things. (She’s also frank and relaxed about all this — no showing-off, and no politicizing of what doesn’t need to be politicized.) Libby’s job is sort of absurd, yet she’s OK with it, mostly, and besides she needs the money. She’s been cheated-on in marriage, she’s uncertain about her dreams, she’s torn between different men, she can’t bring herself to tell off a bossy older sister, and yet she keeps moving forward. When a teenaged niece arrives on her doorstep — and especially when fairies and elves start showing up and sharing gardening advice — things proceed to spiral out of control. In the midst of the chaos, is a fulfilling new life even a possibility?

Mortensen develops her story in semi-farce, semi-Rube-Goldberg fashion. More than once I found myself thinking, “This is like early Zemeckis and Gale, only female.” By which I meant: where Zemeckis and Gale keep piling on the frenetic action and cleverness, the narrative house of cards that Mortensen builds consists of situations, feelings, emotional pulls and tugs, and doubts. (She has her own brand of fluffily giddy ingenuity.) And, unlike many of the chicklit authors whose books I’ve thumbed through — who seem more interested in writing yakky Me!-Me!-Me! magazine pieces than in creating believable fictional worlds — Mortensen has the real fiction-creator’s spark: the characters (even the male characters) are convincing, and the situations (even at their most contrived) are alive. She has a beguiling, blessedly unlabored touch as a prose stylist too. From sentence to sentence it’s really fun accompanying Libby’s mind, sensations and feelings.

Warmly recommended for anyone in the mood for high-quality, down-to-earth light entertainment.

About Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.
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11 Responses to Kirsten Mortensen’s New Novel

  1. heartiste says:

    “Over the years I’ve looked at a lot of chicklit.”

    Hey, man, when I was a stripling I read a good share of pulp romance to glean insight to the mind (and I use the singularly deliberately) of women. It was time well spent! 😉


  2. Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

    Super-excellent review. I liked it too. I wrote something about it a while back, which I’ll tack below your post in the hope that it’ll help convince people to buy the book.

    Her book “Can Job” is also a lot of fun. It’s more of a satire.


    I just finished reading Kirsten Mortensen’s WHEN LIBBY MET THE FAIRIES AND HER WHOLE LIFE WENT FEY. I enjoyed it. It’s about a woman, Libby Samson, who moves to the country after being laid off from her job in Rochester, New York. She intends to pursue a future in organic farming, but that’s a bit of a cover story, an excuse for turning over her life, for re-centering herself. Libby’s one of those slightly tragic people whose conscientiousness invites abuse (she’s something of a doormat), and her desire to till the land is a half-conscious response to her yearning for self-reliance. So it’s a bit ironic when she finds her operation hijacked, first by her wayward niece, then by a tiny nature spirit — a little man who materializes in her field and advises her, curtly, on how to nurture her crops. And that’s just for starters: once word of her fairies hits the internet, Libby’s wannabe farm becomes a magnet for eccentrics and cast-offs, all of them looking for their own renewals and re-orderings (they look to poor Libby as a guru).

    Fortunately, the weirdness of Libby’s little man is balanced by the promise of a big one — a six-foot plus one, to be precise — in the person of a reclusive neighbor named Dean. Laconic and handsome, Dean suggests Gary Cooper, and when he shelters Libby in his log cabin during a region-wide blackout, you may find yourself casting the romantic comedy movie adaptation in your mind.

    The remainder of the novel doesn’t play out as a strict romantic comedy, though. It’s too shot through with the discomfort of irreconcilable differences, and the delineations of neurosis are too close to the bone. It’s screwball, all right, but in a way that often makes you squirm rather than laugh. In particular, the character of Gina, Libby’s domineering older sister, is so persuasively drawn that I found myself wanting to look away from the page whenever she was invoked. She’s terrifying in a way unique to the truly shameless. In the end, it’s that verisimilitude, that insight into the messiness of relationships, that makes LIBBY such a pleasure. It’s a fairy tale that avoids fairy tale neatness.


  3. Pingback: Great Libby Review — I’m very chuffed! | kirsten mortensen

  4. Pingback: “Can Job,” by Kirsten Mortensen | Uncouth Reflections

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