I read the first chapter of Mislaid in the March issue of Harper’s and fell in love with it. I immediately placed a hold, but several others must have read that same excerpt so I only received my long-awaited copy from the library this week. Reading that first chapter again, I smiled in recognition and realized this will be book that stands up to re-reading. In fact, it will become richer with it.
I fell in love with Peggy Vaillancourt, the heroine of this zany comic novel, in that first chapter. She discovers she is a thespian and when she confides in her mother is told thespian or not, she will wear a dress to her coming out and will not join the army. She heads off to a women’s college where she falls for poet-professor Lee Fleming who is fame-rich and cash poor, the un-respected son of a respected Southern family.
He’s a gay as she is thespian, so while their wild infatuation burns hot, it burns out quickly. Nonetheless, they are wed with two children before Peggy finds the wherewithal to leave, leaving her son behind with his father.
The majority of the story is about the intervening years, with Peggy and Lee raising their individual charges. Peggy is hiding in plain sight, almost. She never leaves the state, just her side of the color line. Identifying as black, even with her blonde hair, she and her daughter are the poorest of poor black families. In sharp contrast, Lee continues his life of privilege and raises his son with all the perquisites and promises of privilege.
Time passes with moments of hilarity and pathos. Peggy and her daughter’s lives are constricted by poverty and racism and Zink offers scathing and satiric insight on race and class, poverty and privilege. Lee provides his own moments of obtuse humor from his elevated position as a professor who is gradually losing his savior faire. Eventually they all come together through a series of improbable but necessary coincidences and only then does the novel falter.
I blame it on Peggy. She has ambitions as a writer and writes and writes and writes, but she always wraps things up too quickly. She goes through convoluted international spy thriller conspiracies in eight pages. When the four family members come together, it seems as though Zink hands the typewriter over to Peggy to wrap it up. Well, not technically, in fact, the moving force for the denouement is her daughter, but it is that rush to wrap things up in a hurry that takes over at the end, making the last chapters unsatisfying.
This family was fractured by great betrayal, with tragic separation, a son grew up without a mother, a daughter was denied her father. And yet, rather than tease out the emotions, the hurt, anger and betrayal that might lead to honest resolution, Zink rushed to the end as though her time was up or she was out of paper. A little more patience and this would have been a flawless novel. Instead is mostly flawless, but it ends with a whimper costing it one paw, for a total of four paws.