Gina Frangello tells a tale of “A Life in Men” (2014)

Cover of A LIFE IN MEN

A LIFE IN MEN by Gina Frangello

Publisher: Algonquin Books

Publication Date: February 4, 2014

ISBN-10: 1616201630 (ISBN-13: 978-1616201630)

Formats: paperback, e-book

Length: 432 pages

A Life in Men tells the story of Mary, a young woman with cystic fibrosis who is determined to live life large for as long as it lasts. Although bookish and somewhat introverted while growing up as the adopted daughter of a straight-laced, middle-class couple in a small city in Ohio, Mary is drawn out of her shell by her best friend, Nix (short for Nicole) — an irreverent, extroverted risk-taker —  into the wider world of experience, which includes (as the title suggests) men.

A trip to Greece with Nix seems to hold out promise to Mary for finding herself and losing her virginity, but instead leads to an education that Mary did not expect; Nix endures a severe trauma while protecting Mary from a pair of unsavory men, the narcissism of one of whom (Zorg) verges on the psychopathic. This episode leads to a distancing between the two friends that is both emotional and physical. After Nix puts Mary on a flight back to Ohio, she leaves Greece for an academic year abroad in London.

When Nix — who Mary always  assumed would outlive her — dies unexpectedly as a victim of the Lockerbie terrorist bombing, Mary assumes her identity and goes to London (against the wishes of her parents and her doctors) to live life like Nix always did. This counter-phobic gambit leads to a lifetime of travel and a series of relationships (of various kinds, including but not limited to the sexual) with men, through all of which which Mary explores herself, the world, life, and death as she works towards self-fulfillment and rapprochement with the Nix of her memories.

I took much longer than usual to read this novel, not because Frangello’s prose is difficult — it is lucidly fluid  — but because Mary and the men and women who share in her life are so deeply and thoughtfully drawn that I often became lost in my thoughts about them while trying to make progress in reading. Told by an omniscient narrator, the story shifts by chapter from place to place and character to character. Each chapter tells the reader more about Mary and her life while simultaneously developing the other characters and the physical and social geography of a many and varied international settings (e.g., London, Amsterdam, Querétaro, Greece, Morocco, Kenya). The compelling characterization and vividly evoked settings complement the engrossing story line. Although the plot is fraught with coincidences, such are the threads from which many a life is weaved in reality.

Gina Frangello

Gina Frangello (image via All Write Already)

Gina Frangello is the author of three books of fiction: A Life in Men (Algonquin 2014), Slut Lullabies (Emergency Press 2010), and My Sister’s Continent (Chiasmus 2006). Gina’s short fiction has appeared in dozens of venues including Fence, Prairie Schooner, the Chicago Reader, ACM, and The Beautiful Anthology. Her journalism and book reviews have appeared in many forums, including The Rumpus, TNB, The Huffington Post and the Chicago Tribune.

She is also the Sunday editor for The Rumpus and the fiction editor for The Nervous Breakdown, and is on faculty at UCR-Palm Desert’s low residency MFA program in Creative Writing. The longtime Executive Editor of Other Voices magazine and Other Voices Books, she now runs Other Voices Querétaro, an international writing program. She lives in Chicago.

Disclosure: I received an advance copy of the paperback edition of this novel as a part of my paid membership in the RUMPUS BOOK CLUB. Unfortunately, I missed out on both the online Q & A session with the author and the opportunity to post about her novel before it was published — the best-laid plans, etc., etc., etc.