Penumbra Publishing, $11.99
You are in the bookstore and your eye falls idly on the cover of a new book. It is called “Feminine Products,” and the cover shows a wispy female form covered in little flowers, like a Tampax ad. Does it inspire you to grab it? Hell, no!
But grit your teeth, file your impression in the “What were they thinking?” drawer, and pick it up, because Rita Plush’s latest novel is entertaining and, well, soothing. And we’ve been in need of soothing recently.
If you confess to being a greedy reader rather than a gourmet reader, then you know all about skipping. Your eye effortlessly scans the page, picks out the plums, and leaves the pudding. If you find that you are not skipping, then you may have a writer who, like Ms. Plush, has a spare style — lively, quirky, at times tangential, but pretty much all plums and no pudding.
Rusty Scanlon runs a successful boutique and an unsuccessful love life. She doesn’t trust men, who tend to run out on her, starting with her father, who abandoned her and her mother when she was only 6 years old. Now, nearly 40, she has discovered she is pregnant. With her history, she doesn’t want to raise a child without a father, but her fellow, Walter, although he dotes on her, does not appear ready to take on the role.
Rusty has wounds from the past, including having been raped at 16, but so, she learns, does Walter, who is still crushed by guilt from an accident when he was a teenager that killed his little brother.
With Walter making a serious attempt to leave his past behind and choose to live, Rusty realizes that she must find her father and get over her own hang-ups. The appearance of a smooth-talking con man who is also looking for him may be an opportunity to run him to earth.
Years before, this man seduced Rusty’s mother and stole her savings. One of the hints that Ms. Plush is not going to lead us into the Slough of Despond is that the feisty mother follows him, breaks into his house, steals his checkbook, forges a check, and gets her money back.
I have to say that the parallel story about this con man, Woody or Hank or whatever name he is currently using, is pretty bizarre and does stretch the credulity a little, but as he is a sort of lumbering deus ex machina that keeps the plot rolling, you shrug and move along.
Meanwhile, Jack Paul, the deadbeat dad, has been wandering from town to town, taking temporary jobs, never staying in one place for very long. He is a carpenter, and among the book’s more enjoyable tangents are some marvelous snippets of information about woodworking. A chance job as a substitute shop teacher in a high school, lighting a spark of enthusiasm in a bunch of sullen teenagers, finally allows him to regain a sense of self-worth.
He sets to work to create the dollhouse he once promised his daughter but never made. It will be a copy of the house they were living in when he abandoned his family.
Just him and the house now, he’s gluing rough sandpaper to the plywood walls to get the stucco finish he remembers. It’s exacting work. He has to be careful to spread the glue just shy of the edges so when he presses the paper to the walls, it won’t ooze out between the seams, and measure and fit the paper so he ends up with as few seams as possible.
His fingers move as if without command from his brain. His fingers are his brain, an extension of his tools — tiny precision tools he’s mastered as if he’s never held a full-size wrench or screwdriver. Miniature implements like tweezers, small manicuring scissors . . . a small-scale miter box he made himself. . . .
Then he, too, sets out on the journey to find his daughter.
Disaster looms in various different ways and makes your heart sink, but though it does a lot of looming, it never arrives. It’s not “Gone Girl.” It’s not “The Girl on the Train.” It’s about homecoming and how even the most dysfunctional and wounded people can heal. And for that, thank you, Ms. Plush.
Sheridan Sansegundo, a former arts editor of The Star, lives in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
Rita Plush, who lives in Queens, is the author of “Lily Steps Out,” a novel, and “Alterations,” a book of short stories. She had a house in East Hampton until last year.