The pregnant girl enters the Trenton Family Clinic,” begins Tracy Barone’s debut novel Happy Family, “looking like she parted the Red Sea to get there. The lower half of her dress is wet with amniotic fluid, and the upper half is streaked with sweat.” This is a grand opening line for a novel, dense with imagery, evocative of the Bible, and thick with bodily fluids. It promises both legend and messy corporeality. It’s a woman’s body, split in two.
Happy Family is the story of Cheri Matzner, the baby who’s straining to be born in the book’s first sentence. Her mother, a teenager, runs away as soon as she gives birth, and Cheri is soon adopted by a couple with their own sketchy past. The book picks up with Cheri as an adult (seemingly of the high-functioning variety) as the secrets from her past boomerang back in the general direction of her head.
On Thursday, Barone will read from Happy Family at the Seattle Public Library downtown. The most important element of this reading for Seattle audiences is that she’ll be interviewed by Seattle author Maria Semple, which will elevate it from an intriguing appearance by a first-time, out-of-town author to an absolute must-see. Semple, a writer for TV shows like Arrested Development who moved to Seattle and found international fame with her second novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, is an avid reader. If she loves a novel, she’ll recommend it to anyone within hollering distance. If she hates a book—and she hates a lot of books—it’s almost as though she’s morally offended. Her appearance at Barone’s reading is a sign of approval from a famously opinionated writer.
In addition, this is a rare public appearance for Semple; she’s been holed up for more than a year writing Today Will Be Different, her follow-up to Bernadette, to be published this October. At this reading it’s possible that, since she’s been immersed in it for months, she might accidentally share some information about Different, which so far has been relatively shrouded in mystery.
These two writers should have a lot to discuss. Barone could learn from Semple’s wild ride to international literary stardom, or they could compare the way they use humor to soften the impact of some of the sharp-edged drama in their books. For instance, Barone will use an off-kilter observation, like a character’s propensity to talk dirty in Italian when aroused, to mask a dysfunctional relationship, and Semple used Bernadette’s pathological loathing of all things Seattle to disguise her inner turmoil. Wherever the conversation takes them, you’ll want to follow.
Seattle Public Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., 386-4636, spl.org. Free. All ages. 7 p.m. Thurs., June 16.
Paul Constant is the co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. Read daily books coverage like this at seattlereviewofbooks.com.