There’s something trippy and “down-the-rabbit-hole”-ish about fiction that uses reality television as a backdrop, particularly if you accept that the “reality” of such television is, to a good degree, fictional. Seven years ago, Carolyn Parkhurst crafted her second novel, Lost and Found, around one season of an Amazing Race-like competition show; in the years since, being cast in a reality-TV show has become a competition in and of itself. Caeli Wolfson Widger’s debut novel, Real Happy Family, has a firm grasp on the current climate, and the made-up shows that its plot hinges on sound entirely plausible.
Widger’s characters are immediately recognizable–you’ve seen them on TV, in both reality and scripted forms, and if you live in or around Los Angeles, you may well have encountered people like them in everyday life, one way or another. (There are more people than you’d think in L.A. who aren’t directly involved with the entertainment-industrial complex, but in many, many cases, the degree of separation is pretty small.) For the most part, however, that familiarity skirts cliché, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that Widger’s primary characters were less shallow than I might have expected them to be. While it may be wearing the latest style, Real Happy Family isn’t exactly telling a new story (see the plot description following this commentary), and if I hadn’t been able to connect with the characters, I doubt it would have made much of an impression on me.
Widger has a solid grasp of the absurdities surrounding the making of TV and movies in the 21st century, yet Real Happy Family doesn’t read like satire–that’s another aspect of the novel that I didn’t expect, but which I very much appreciated. It’s almost too easy sometimes to make fun of people who are driven by dreams of reality-TV fame, and of those who are along for the ride; Widger doesn’t entirely shy away from that, but she doesn’t mine its full potential of ridiculousness, either. This is a story that could have been much more breezily told about much less sympathetic characters, and I think it’s a credit to the author that it isn’t. Real Happy Family is a fast and not-too-fluffy read that engaged and entertained me.
Part-time actress, full-time party girl Lorelei Branch isn’t famous yet, but she’s perfected a Hollywood lifestyle full of clubbing, fashion, and the latest juice cleanse. When Robin, her sister-in-law and agent, throws a plum job her way, Lorelei jumps at the chance and auditions to be the new girl on television’s hottest reality show, Flo’s Studio.
Enter Colleen, Lorelei’s pill-popping mother, who wants nothing more than to see her daughter win the fame and glory she never had a chance to pursue herself. But Lorelei’s dream of becoming the next reality star is dashed when she loses the spot on Flo’s Studio to a stunning African woman. In an attempt to defend her daughter against what she calls a rigged contest, Colleen goes ballistic and delivers a racist rant on live television, sparking a national media frenzy. Lorelei flees the limelight, humiliated and broke, with her slacker boyfriend Don and heads for Reno where she begins to self-destruct.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Branch family starts to come apart at the seams. Colleen and her husband, Carl, are quietly drifting apart. Darren, Lorelei’s older half-brother, is stuck in Florida working on a contentious film set while his wife, Robin, continues the tedious regimen of fertility drugs meant to help them conceive a child. Desperate to bring the family together again and make things right, Colleen hatches a plan to stage an intervention for Lorelei on the reality show Real Happy Family. Soon the entire Branch family is entangled in a mission to bring the prodigal daughter back into the fold.
From the Prologue:
“No one else in Reno was running on the sidewalk connecting downtown to the Truckee River, but Lorelei had no choice. Something hideous was behind her.
“She was still wearing her Lucky Bastard uniform, the tight black skirt and fitted white shirt unbuttoned too low. The plasticky high heels unsuited to waiting tables, much less running at top speed. Blisters blossomed on both feet and her ankles throbbed, but she pushed on.
“The pain was nothing compared to the fear.
“She was afraid to check over her shoulder, to see if the bartender was following. Up ahead, Reno glittered under a moonlit dome, the Sierra Nevada turned to black M’s on the horizon. Something was different this time; something was wrong. The euphoria and the go-go-go were there, but they weren’t pure. They were cut with panic. The stuff she’d smoked was letting in the feelings it normally stamped out. Not just letting them in, but amplifying them. And the perfect heat that usually suffused her whole body seconds after the drug hit her bloodstream was missing. In its place was a prickly fever in her face and icy sweat in her clenched fists. Her heart was slamming.”