Dutton, 2002, 360 pages, C$35.99 hc, ISBN 0-525-94644-6
With the untimely demise of Olivia Goldsmith in early 2004, we can expect her literary output to become a finite set (allowing for the usual posthumous publications). As a reader who likes to make sweeping generalizations about one’s life work, this places me in an advantageous position: I just have to “complete the collection” and I’ll be ready for a scathing assessment. I’m not there yet, but Pen Pals ends up being Goldmith’s last novel published in her lifetime (with Dumping Billy already in the publishing pipeline), leading to a cautious preliminary assessment.
Unfortunately, the pattern of Goldsmith’s book follows the typical downward arc. From her capable debut with The First Wives’ Club (1992, adapted in a movie, etc.), Goldsmith toned down the “female revenge fantasy” aspect of her first novel to produce a trio of rather moralistic-but-enjoyable docu-fiction studying different industries, from fashion (Fashionably Late) to TV/cinema (Flavour of the Month) to the publishing world (The Bestseller) As the nineties grew to a close, she went back to (poor) female revenge fantasies with Young Wives (2000). Pen Pals ends up being a mixture of both female revenge fantasy and docu-fiction.
This time around, poor Jenifer Spenser is the victim of a plot hatched by her male bosses: She takes the rap for corporate malfeasance, goes through what is anticipated to be an abortive trial and walks away free in exchange for future considerations. Alas, as you may guess, things don’t go as planned and she ends up serving three-to-five in the pen. Ideal conditions for a revenge plot and a study of the carceral environment? Why, of course: Within pages, Jennifer meets her crew, suffers through the American prison system, engineers a corporate takeover, toughens up and ends up punishing her no-good traitorous boyfriend. Good times, good times.
As pure entertainment, Pen Pals sustains interest much better than Young Wives (which got old really fast), providing at least the basic requirements of that sort of books. But it’s not quite as fascinating as her previous docu-fiction because the sense of wilful deceit is far greater than it was in, say, Flavour of the Month: Despite a few bad moments early on, prison life turns out to be a blast once snappier outfits are delivered. If we were to believe Goldsmith’s characters, most women in prison are victims of the system, innocent wallflowers that either killed their men when they deserved it, or got lifelong sentences for selling pot to their ailing kids. The few violent and mentally disturbed prisoners can be safely isolated in their own wing (they, of course, are nothing like the heroines of the novel.) Once prison management gets its act together, all can live in peace and harmony.
Pardon me as I raise an eyebrow.
Now, it is true that I don’t know much about the subject, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that writing a feel-good novel in a prison environment just begs for selective vision. Even Goldsmith acknowledges as such in the after-word. What compounds this basic problem, of course, is Goldsmith’s knee-jerk repetition of the female revenge theme. While there are ways to make it palatable and not too derivative (see her docu-fiction trilogy for examples), it doesn’t even take ten chapters for Pen Pals to fall into familiar plot templates.
Goldsmith should be applauded for at least trying to raise awareness of problems related to the modern justice system, the increasing privatization of prisons and the plight of prisoners in an overburdened, underfunded environment. But really, the vehicle she has built to share her concerns actively works against what she’s saying: Whoever remembers Pen Pals weeks after reading it won’t recall an impassioned plea for better prisons: They’ll either remember a heart-warming tale of female empowerment, or a bad novel.
What’s equally worrisome is that Goldmith’s latter work itself will be remembered more as bad fiction than good entertainment.