Curse of the Spellmans by Lisa Lutz

Isabel is a young neurotic private investigator working for her family’s private investigation company in San Francisco. Being particularly fond of San Francisco, I like the setting, although, as if often in novels set in places, you rarely do get a good glimpse of the city. All you usually get are the names of streets. She does dispel the myth that Mark Twain said the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco. I would have to disagree with the narrator. I’ve visited “Frisco” (I know it annoys them, that’s why I say it, or SFO) in the summer and I can tell you, when the wind blows down from the north, it can be unbearably cold. There’s a reason the souvenir shops all sell cheap sweaters and hoodies in the summer time. Isabel’s family I presume is Jewish because of the name, the fact that Isabel frequents a Jewish deli, and the overall neuroticism. I know it sounds wrong, but it’s not like a little-known stereotype. The family is a bit off. They spy on each other and record each other’s conversations like they’re investigating each other. Isabel calls them all micro-managers. I’ve noted some Jewish cultural things that are similar to other oppressed cultures like blacks, Koreans, and the Irish, so I won’t belabor that too much. Perhaps when you cannot effectively provide for your family, make sufficient money, and are deprived of opportunities, you can go one of two routes. You can become lazy and destitute and a drunkard, or you can make an even greater effort at everything and sometimes this means becoming obsessive about your work or whatever endeavor you have.

The novel is oddly chopped up into small scenes sometimes titled reports that sound like small briefings and testimonies, but it comes across as entertaining with a lot of odd dialogue. It’s definitely and unique and refreshing style, although a bit choppy and neurotic-y. The story follows Isabel as she deals with her family, e.g., her teenage younger sister’s odd friendship with a local detective as well as an intrigue with a new neighbor whom she seems to be infatuated with but unknowingly deceives herself of this infatuation by concocted a deep suspicion about everything about him. It starts off at the end, giving away the fact that she was arrested for stalking him and defying a restraining order, and the rest of the book explains the why and how. She intersperses a little history of her family here and there, including her father’s multiple peculiar mid-life crises. It turns out there are four on-going mysteries. Why is her brother David acting so weird. Why is her mother acting so weird. Why is her father acting so weird.

Over time, it becomes quite evident that Isabel is nuts. She has convinced herself that her new neighbor is a fiendly criminal and goes to lengths to prove it. The author’s style, however, is so compelling and quirky and neurotic that it keeps me entertained although in the back of my head it’s like watching a car wreck. At the same time, I keep getting sidetracked by my memories of San Francisco, a city I’ve visited over 30 times. San Francisco was a life-changing experience. When I was in college, I wasn’t into life experience. I wasn’t into any experiencing except my singular, obsession with getting a college degree and then climbing the corporate ladder and becoming outrageously wealthy. There are moments in time when a simple thing changes your entire trajectory, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. For example, I read a study that said weightlifting two times a week is just as good as three, so I wound up weightlifting once a week thinking, that’s not so bad. Got nowhere. If I had never read that stupid study, I might have lifted weights twice a week and built up some decent muscles. So I was in my high school library and came upon a Business Week article about the salary of CEOs and was blown away. I didn’t pay attention to the fact that they were all extremely old men, just the pow of their six-figure annual salaries with bonuses. I was raised to be goal-oriented, but fortunately, that all ended when I failed both college accounting and finance. I suffered a breakdown and wondered what the hell now. I decided to become a professional writer. Yeah, I know, good luck with that. After get a shellacking in my fiction writing class (half undeserved), I gave up on fiction writing to pursue nonfiction writing. Long story short, I was never into the living experience and what big cities could offer until I went to San Francisco. There are only three downtowns in America that I feel are big enough to consider worth visiting or living in and they are Manhattan, Chicago, and San Francisco. It would take considerable effort for you to walk all across them whereas any other downtown in America, you can walk a few miles and wind up in the suburbs or some brown fields or ghetto. You can walk all day long in Manhattan, Chicago, and San Francisco and never run out downtown and awesome things to do.

What was it about San Francisco? First of all, the streets were alive. I was in Sacramento at the time, and even in downtown Sacramento on the weekends, the streets seemed deserted. Where the fuck is everyone? In downtown SF especially at night, the streets were full of life and an incredible diversity of life. Minus the ubiquitous aggressive panhandlers, it felt like you were never alone. There were convenience stores or bars at nearly every block. Always someone loitering around a corner, not necessarily drug dealers or panhandlers. The place was also full of tourists especially Union Square and Market Street. It was mind-blowing. But the people also make the city. I felt that the people were nicer and warmer and more open-minded. Of course they are open-minded because of the high number of gays, but even minus the gay community, I think SF would still be very open minded and friendly. Of course, your company also makes the city. If you are with locals who show you around and are generally nice and kind, it makes you feel that the city is a wonderful home. I was also there going through turbulent times, so whenever you go through hard times, I think your senses are a bit askew and tend to pick up on things they would otherwise miss. You have more of those odd moments that linger and linger. It’s probably related to how you pick up on things when you are traumatized like smells, colors, textures, patterns, tastes, etc. I have an extremely vivid sense memory of SF, perhaps because of the personal turbulence I was experiencing. More than anything else, I remember the sunsets, how it painted the sides of buildings that deep red, purple, dark blue color, and the briny thick wet air. I always fantasized about living in San Francisco after winning the lottery, but as time goes on, I start to realize that it may never happen. Of course, I don’t want to remember the smell of urine in the alleys and streets, but good or bad, all those sense-memories go hand-in-hand. I remember the sadness of the broken lives on the streets, especially the wasted young kids destroyed by childhood traumas and drug abuse. While Vegas has this thick lacquer that suffocates it and creates this Disney for adults aura, San Francisco is pretty raw like a fresh wound. Of course, it winds up being as concocted as Vegas, because where else do billionaires live next door to fixed-income housing and drug recovery housing folks and the homeless? With all the hipsters so vociferously clamoring for authenticity, it becomes so intense that it destroys any hopes of authenticity. Authenticity should never be manufactured. Just like hippies, there are the diehards who live the hippie life in communes and tuning out, and then there are those who just dress like hippies and party to get laid with hippie chicks. But none-the-less, I’d rather hang around people who are at least trying to be conscientious consumers and humans rather than mindless brand, chain-following zombies of the great American suburban apocalypse.

What does it take to live in a city like San Francisco? First, sacrifice. You’re not so much into creature comforts. You don’t mind living with roommates or a closet. Your desire for the big city life, for excitement, for exciting people, for adventure and diversity and novelty and action is so much higher than your desire for security, comfort, and warmth. The novel doesn’t get too deep. It’s more like a screenplay, but it’s a nice distraction and the 400 pages moves along pretty quickly. With many crime thrillers I’ve read, I’ve often skimmed just to get to the answers, but in this book, the answer isn’t that big of a deal. In this case, it’s the journey that counts more. The author has more to say with the journey and her family life than she does with the outcome. In a sense, the crime thriller aspect is a red herring, a distraction, while in fact, the book is about her family and her age 30 narrator’s personal life. Perhaps being a private investigator is an excuse for a woman that goes around snooping way too much into her ex’s life. I don’t usually like to read prequels or sequels, but if I’m in need of a nice distraction for a few hours, I’ll probably grab this book. Fact is, living with a paranoid neurotic is no fun. While I’d love to meet Isabel and go on a few dates with her, I wouldn’t want to be her boyfriend or husband. She is way too obsessive and neurotic, and as her sister points out, she uses humor to distance herself emotionally. In the afterward, the author gets interviewed about the book, and almost every answer is a distracting joke. “Are you currently working on any other projects?” The author replies, “I’m currently reorganizing my sock drawer.” Buh-dum-bum.

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