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Ralph's Party by Lisa Jewell

Ralph's Party falls under the category of a pleasant surprise.  I have tapped it as one of my Premier Book Recommendations because it hit me as an unusually bright and clever alternative to the constant flood of fiction in today's bookstores.

In Ralph's Party, six seemingly independent lives come together in a tremendous ending.  It begins with two London roommates, Smith and Ralph, with an extra room for rent.  Along comes a prospective new roommate, Jem.  Peering through the window into the basement apartment, Jem immediately realizes a comfortable feeling.  Somehow she knows that this is just the right place for her, and it may provide more than merely a place to live.

Smith and Ralph quickly accept Jem as their new roommate.  She is a welcomed change for two bachelors who have known each other since they were teenagers.  And just as quickly as Jem moves in, she and Smith become an item.  

Instantly Ralph is miffed with the situation - just who is this girl and why does Smith make the boneheaded decision to get involved with her?  This can lead to nothing but trouble, Ralph thinks.  So it is through Ralph that we get to know Jem, something the insensitive Smith doesn't bother to do.  

Along the way we meet the other inhabitants living above Smith, Ralph, and Jem.  First there is Karl and Siobahn.  They are a seemingly happy couple struggling with the contentment that sometimes creeps into a long term relationship.  On the top floor is Cheri, a picture of perfect blonde beauty and a seductress.  

Through these six Londoners Lisa Jewell presents the many complicated aspects of friendship, dating, attraction, and commitment.  She skillfully brings this about in a steady flow of insightful witticisms from the handful of characters making their way into Ralph's Party.  For example, in a quick flashback to Jem's teenage years, we glimpse into a pivotal relationship between her and the school hunk.  She asks him, "Why me?"  And he replies,

"I dunno," he'd said, half-smiling, "it's not the way you look, it's just something about you.  I just really fancy you."  Justin Jones had unwittingly instilled in Jem with that one, long-ago, offhand comment a confidence that any amount of fawning compliments from lovesick suitors could not have achieved.  He had paid her personality a compliment. 

Later in the book, during a night out on the town, Jem and Ralph run into Jem's butcher, Peter.  Only an acquaintance of Jem's up to this point, they begin a pleasant conversation, revealing the thoughtful side untapped in so many of us.  Peter casually observes,

"Everyone in this city is scared, aren't they?  There are lots of weirdos out there, but I don't suppose many of them are likely to kill you or kidnap you, are they?...So many people in this world and the law of averages says that you can only ever get to know such a tiny percentage of them.  And fear means that you'll get to know even less.  Why are we so scared of each other?"

It is these aspects - the vivid characters, their relationships, and the brilliant insights into their lives - that conspire to keep you up late night after night reading Ralph's Party.  I will, however, be critical of two aspects of the book.  

At nearly 300 pages, it had a feel as too long.  Still, I certainly would not want to edit the book and be responsible for cutting any gem that someone else would cherish.  Also, it is somewhere between the first third and first half of the book where the plot begins to take off.  But who knows, maybe I was just anxious to find out "what's next" with every chapter.  

In reviewing Ralph's Party I reread all of my favorite parts, the parts I had highlighted. (Since it was a paperback I saw no harm in putting a highlighter to it.) At some parts I approvingly shook my head, others made me smile, and finally I thought, "This is too good. I gotta read this again sometime."

Buy it, order it, or give it as a gift.  But whatever you do, read Ralph's Party.  You will not be disappointed.   

 

 

Ralph's Party is available in the U.S. through Plume Books.

Retail price is $12.95

ISBN 0-452-28163-6.

Find out about Lisa Jewell's other novels, Thirtynothing and One Hit Wonder, in Lisa's personal web site, lisa-jewell.co.uk

Posted Saturday December 1, 2001.