“The Talking Stick”: Donna Levin’s Bold and Ingratiating Blend of Friendship, Deception and Memory

In her long career, novelist Donna Levin has established herself as a warm and accomplished voice among American commercial novelists, known for her insightful explorations of complex family dynamics and the intricacies of human relationships. In books like Extraordinary MeansCalifornia StreetThere’s More Than One Way Home and He Could Be Another Bill Gates, she’s explored with grace and wit themes of self-discovery, the challenges of parenting a child with autism and the nuances of personal relationships. Yet now, with The Talking Stick (Skyhorse), she’s achieved a late-career best and mastered a tough balancing act. This fast-paced, generously over-stuffed sandwich of a dramedy delves into the power of memory and the strength found in female friendships, exposes the deceptive schemes of today’s malign political cult figures, and is never less than giddily entertaining.

On its face, it’s the sort of female bonding/unlikely friendship romcom we’ve seen before, three acts tailor-made for the movies, First Wives Club meets Jane Austen Book Club (meets Freaks and Geeks, of course). And this would make a terrific movie, since it has the right mix of tears, laughs and suspense, but it’s also audacious in its seamless mix of genres – women’s fiction, comedy, magical-realism, and, especially, in rather fearless topicality. Suddenly, Levin is a contrarian writer who cheerfully pushes buttons so shrewdly and subtly that you might not even notice. And it’s women’s fiction without sentimentality, pathos without melodrama, cringe-comedy that never feels forced, a social-button pusher so gentle, wise and undidactic that it is unlikely to offend, a romcom that doesn’t follow the predictable formula and fantasy elements so ambiguous that they fit right into a novel that’s both magical and real.

Hunter Fitzgerald feels lost after her husband leaves her for her former best friend, Angelica, whose new hit memoir has spread so many vicious lies about Hunter that she’s unemployable at her vocation as a fitness trainer. Hunter tries, without success, to start a support group for Marin County women seeking new beginnings, and inadvertently creates a group of friends instead; Angelica starts a rival group that that grows into a genuine cult of victimhood. 

Hunter’s group of endearing, impossible and vividly drawn women includes Penelope, an unhappily married, drug-addicted wealthy woman with a secret; Dannika, an aimless, early-twenties Goth Girl mourning the death of her artist-mother; and Alicia, an overworked, unmarried doctor with a troubled teen daughter (and another deeply buried secret). The four women delve into their pasts with the help of Hunter’s mysteriously (maybe magically) acquired “talking stick,” which may or permit them to relive with utter accuracy forgotten or buried memories. Of course, the unlikeliest of acquaintances become the most valuable and cherished friends, intractable obstacles dissolve under the glare of discovered truth, and the various comeuppances that the women, and the reader, initially want so badly don’t even matter in the end. Even the wandering husband emerges unscathed. Enemies only matter if you let them matter.

What is it about “unlikely friendship” stories? Maybe it is heartwarming to believe that there is more that connects us as humans than divides us; or, as Levin asserts in an Oblivioni interview, one can learn and improve only through exposure to people radically different from ourselves, with “different philosophies of life or different values.” Unlikely friendships are unlikely in life but essential in entertainment. But the big question for any story of this type is whether the central “unlikely” relationships feel believable in the end, or whether they feel forced. Usually they feel forced. Here, the friendships feel real, charming and ingratiating. Thank goodness they found each other! the reader thinks.

Donna Levin

As for those hot buttons she pushes? Levin’s writing has always demonstrated a politically progressive mind, but, nevertheless — while she is no right-wing social warrior — here she expresses deep impatience with a movement that rewards victimhood and exalts grievance, that would condemn a romance merely because it arises from an unequal power dynamic, or that would deny that objective truth exists. Levin, in this novel, believes in truth, not subjective context, and she exalts love, forgiveness, and moving on from trauma and out of victimhood. She even includes a few surprising digs at rehab. Yet it’s all done with such a light touch, in such a graceful novel, that you might not even see what she’s up to. 

Levin peppers the book with distracting homages to F. Scott Fitzgerald (inadvertent, she insists) that serve no narrative purpose.

Still, this is a terrific book, a surefire bestseller that would not be out of place at Crown or Riverhead but whose gently expressed message fits right in with Skyhorse’s more overtly contrarian books. Funny, tender, warmhearted, beautifully written, The Talking Stick is Donna Levin’s best novel in a career filled with so many great books. 

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Photos: Gina Logan

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