Book Review – From A to Zoe

From A to ZoeFrom A to Zoe by Marie-Jo Fortis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved this little book. It lacks pretension. It’s self-aware without being self-absorbed—artsy without the fartsy. It’s beautiful with a healthy dose of the real—like Mona Lisa with a gap-tooth grin or The Birth of Venus with a mastectomy scar.

Zoe Zimmerman is a modern girl, a writer trying to slip the bonds of her small-town past in the middle of a seedy Manhattan that just doesn’t give a damn, except sporadically, and then just enough to keep our girl plodding on. I’ve known Zoes in my life. Mostly I try to avoid them. They are, in the parlance of my adopted Southland, hot messes. They are hard to live with, but easy to love. They are too interesting for their own good.

This Zoe has a lump on her breast. She is trying hard not to think about it. Her married lover won’t let her ignore it. He’s one of the bonds she’s trying to slip. As married lovers go, though, he’s apparently one of the good ones. Doesn’t hurt that he’s a doctor. Be that as it may, Zoe is trying to make it on her own terms. She doesn’t want the help that she needs.

Not to be ignored, life piles on, and before she knows it Zoe is a suspect in the murder of her boss. This is not nearly so upsetting as you might think after a cancer diagnosis. Trust me. I’m a two time cancer survivor myself. I know how this works. The author describes it like this:

“There are some strangely cozy, almost comforting moments in disease, at least for a writer. I live in another world, not a dynamic world, not a world of incessant movement, but a world of fatigue and medication, a fuzzed world of meditation.”

There is a beauty and purpose down in that ‘fuzzed world of meditation’ from which it is difficult to rouse oneself—even in self defense.

There are a lot of lovely things in here. Fortiss displays genuine artistry in her writing. It is lyrical, painterly even, but not overwrought. There is minimal intrusion by the author. She doesn’t explain too much—makes you feel good when you figure it out. For instance Zoe’s brother’s name is Ziegfried. So she says this about her rent-controlled apartment in New York:

“I share my palace with Ziegfried II. We had to get used to each other, and it didn’t take that long. Each night, he would come and cross the place at all speed, stop for a minute, look at me, mustache shivering and all, then cross the room again and hide. I started leaving a piece of Swiss cheese by his observation post. The first night he saw it, he looked at it, danced around it, smelled it, and left without even giving me a glance.”

So I love that she left it to me to figure out that Ziegfried II is a rat. I also love that this tells me quite a lot about Zoe, and about her relationship with her brother.

There is beautiful phrasing throughout. About waking up, she says, “ … full of myopia and mystery and the remnants of a dream.” or about the comfort of her lover, “… the perfect asylum of his arms.” There are great extended similes: “The lady’s laughter started in melodic adagios and ended in a symphony for trumpets written by a musically challenged brat. It invaded her body to the point that she almost destabilized herself, despite her sensible shoes.” … with a touch of humor.

Really, I love Fortiss’s deft pen. From A to Zoe looks like Chick-Lit, but in the end, for me at least, it is just Lit, and in the best possible way. If you’re looking for standard plot points and a satisfactory resolution of Zoe’s sundry difficulties, you’re missing the point. Zoe is a character. This is a character study. Zoe is as challenging as she is challenged, and it’s really not about how she succeeds, but rather how she tries. Five solid stars from me. This is as good a book as I’ve read in some time.

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