Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 1965–67) has written nine novels including-purportedly- the first long fiction to come out of the Peace Corps, Lament for a Silver-Eyed Woman, meaning written by a volunteer with characters who are volunteers. Her most recent, Dirty Water: A Red Sox Mystery, was written in collaboration with her son, Sox blogger Jere Smith. She has also written a memoir, Girls of Tender Age, in which she gives two paragraphs to the Peace Corps although the book does include a photo of her and her Cameroonian students. She is presently working on a Civil War novel. Here she reviews the first novel by Emily Arsenault (South Africa 2004–06) entitled The Broken Teaglass.
The Broken Teaglass
by Emily Arsenault (South Africa 2004–06)
Reviewed by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Cameroon 1965–67)
As I slip into The Broken Teaglass knowing nothing about the work or its author except that she’s a former Peace Corps volunteer (otherwise I wouldn’t be here), I do my usual read-every-page thing including the copyright page wherein lies the clue that tells me I’m reading a debut novel:
OKIE FROM MUSKOGEE © Sony/ATV Songs LLC. All rights reserved… Used by permission.
Only first novelists weave song lyrics into the narrative because they don’t know it’ll cost them, and when they receive the surprising bill they choose to maintain creative control and pay up. Then they get over it as evidenced by subsequent books which never include song lyrics. (This does not apply to rich writers.)
Turning past the dedication page, I see that no acknowledgments follow. Finally, publishers are putting them at the end of the book. If only publishers would say to writers, “I’ll give you a thousand bucks to skip the acknowledgments.”
Next a prologue (I love backstory), and then somewhere in the midst of Chapter One I am utterly enchanted by this lovingly languid mystery rife with secrets some of which are charming, some sleazy and some tragic.
And so, the charm, elicited by a pair of twenty-something protagonist/sleuths employed as lexicographers by the Samuelson Company, publisher of the world-famous dictionary. Newly hired Billy, the narrator (male narrator, female writer-hmmm…), and Mona, who has worked there for a year, go about the intellectual though tedious tasks necessary to land a new word in the dictionary: finding references to said words; citing those references; and collecting enough citations for the senior editors to bestow the Samuelson imprimatur. A typical citation:
Mrs. Hopkins was one of the only editrixes at the journal, but she was one of the most valuable members on staff. She had a unique ability to spot and foster young writing talent. Male colleagues patronizingly referred to her style as “the motherly touch.“
This methodology, of course, takes years-decades-so just about the time you find yourself in need of a laugh, you learn that the Samuelson employment contract includes public relations duties; Billy learns that he must take turns answering phone calls and letters from bozos who want to know such things as whether or not it is acceptable to spell the word judgment as in Judgment Day with an e-Judgement- if it will appear in a tattoo. Employees must refrain from responding with, “You can spell judgment in a tattoo any fucking way you want, you moron,” but rather, “I’m afraid I can’t tell you which spelling, Judgment Day or Judgement Day, is more appropriate for the tattoo you plan to receive. I can tell you that judgment is the more common spelling variant here in the U.S. The decision of what to include in one’s tattoo, however, is a highly personal one, and I think you should use whichever spelling pleases you.”
Charming also includes the irresistible vulnerability and snottiness of Billy and Mona; they are at that pompous age where one attempts to make sense of one’s life, i.e. on the cusp of finding out what the rest of us already know: there is no sense to our lives.
The sleaze factor: Mona confides in Billy that she is finding “cits” referencing a novel that doesn’t exist, The Broken Teaglass. (Uh…Mona, I’m reading it. But wait a minute, the eponymous novel is written by Delores Beekmim. Ms. Beekmim definitely doesn’t exist.) These cits are a growing chronology of cryptic clues to, possibly, a murder. But as Billy and Mona find more and more of them, they become convinced that there must have been a murder, and-omigod- that the cits were written by a former Samuelson employee of many years past, the mysterious Mary Anne, who may or may not have been having a love affair with her immediate supervisor, the provocatively disarming Dan, who is now Billy and Mona’s supervisor.
The two continue to poke around trying, at the same time, to keep Dan and everyone else from noticing (thereby producing some enlivening tension) until they are convinced by the cits’ references to blood and to secrets Mary Anne revealed to “Red” (lo and behold, the nickname for the old retiree who still brings around boxes of doughnuts) that she committed the murder. But who is the victim, where is the body and what has become of Mary Anne?
In an orthodox mystery, the crime comes before the clues. Not so here. Does the reversal work? Oh, yeah.
Finally, as to the tragic secrets that will break your heart, I give no clues and insist you wait and read the book to find them out, just as Arsenault made me wait until the book was half over.
With winter approaching, I recommend buying this book, grabbing a tattered quilt, settling into your favorite chair-preferably by a fire- making sure 90 proof hot toddy is on the chairside table. (Our two heroes think nothing of drinking till they pass out or throw up.) With that, you will be appropriately prepared for a most wonderful literary mystery, with a splendid climax, a most satisfying denouement, and with a perfect tinge of ambiguity in the final tantalizing lines. When I closed The Broken Teaglass and took one last sip of my favorite toddy-Macallen 12, neat- I thought, What is not to love here? Nothing.
I loved every cited and uncited word.