Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


The Wonder Spot by Melissa Bank


Rating: (Recommended)




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I never read Melissa Bank’s 1999 novel, Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing, which some critics hailed as raising the bar for Chick Lit. I decided to read her new novel, The Wonder Spot, to see if the acclaim continues and to try to see if I could enjoy chick lit. Bank presents protagonist Sophie Applebaum at various stages of her life in The Wonder Spot, and Sophie gradually becomes an appealing character, and one for whom relationships can be daunting. The pace at which Bank reveals Sophie’s family, the men in her life, and her struggles with becoming who she is, may frustrate some readers, but I found Bank pitch perfect in revealing this character and her struggles with delicacy. Here’s an excerpt from the college years, featuring Sophie’s roommate, from the beginning of the chapter titled, “The Toy Bar,” pp. 53-59:


Venice Lambourne was famous the way a beautiful girl can be in a small circle of places and parties, but hardly anyone knew her. Knock­out was the word people used to describe Venice, and bombshell, and she did seem to stir violence; men could seem almost angry at her for being so pretty.

I met Venice when we were both eighteen. She was my roommate. This was at Rogers, the not-very-good school in Klondike, New York—according to Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges, median SAT: 1100, average GPA: 2.9. Venice said the reason she was there was that her SATs had somehow not arrived at the better schools she’d applied to; she said that her application to Rogers consisted of one phone call her uncle placed to the admissions committee. I doubted the story, as I did almost every story Venice told, but it turned out to be true—or true enough.

Venice didn’t arrive until the night before classes started, hours af­ter the last parents had kissed their freshman sons and daughters good-bye and gotten into station wagons headed homeward for Darien, Connecticut, or Katonah, New York, or, in my parents’ case, Surrey, Pennsylvania. Venice pulled up in a cab and carried her sole suitcase inside.

She knocked on what at that moment became our door and walked into what still felt to me like my room.

She was very thin and very tall—five foot ten in flat shoes. She al­most always wore flats, one pair until they wore out, and then she’d get another. She didn’t have many things—not many clothes or many possessions, either; she believed in owning only perfect things, or, as she said, “one perfect thing.”

Her hair was blond and straight, and she tucked it behind her ears; she had blue eyes that you noticed partly because her brows were so dark and thick.

She said, “I’m Venice Lambourne,” and when she shook my hand her formality unnerved me so much that I answered as I’d been in­structed to as a child: “How do you do?” Then I said, “I’m Sophie. Applebaum.”

She told me that she’d been traveling and was exhausted; she’d come all the way from Antibes.

I hadn’t heard of Antibes but vaguely remembered a movie called Raid on Entebbe, and was it in Israel or somewhere in Africa? Was Is­rael in Africa?

“Wow,” I said, and then suggested that maybe she wanted to check in with our resident adviser, a button-nosed teddy bear named Betsy, who’d been worried.

This Venice seemed not to hear. “I need a drink,” she said.

When I told her about the soda machine in the basement, she turned and looked at me as though I was the last and possibly the longest leg of her trip.

She’d passed a bar that she said was close and open. “Those might be its only virtues,” she said, “but they are the only virtues I care about at the moment.”

I hesitated; with the lack of self-knowledge I’d exhibit for years to come, I’d signed up for an eight o’clock class.

I told her that the bar was called the Pines, and it was the college bar, basically the only bar, but fine; I was hoping that if I talked long enough she’d realize how tired she was.

She raised her thick eyebrows, asking why I was talking about a bar we should be walking to, and I said, “I have an eight o’clock class.”

She said, “I don’t even know what I’m taking,” and won.

It took her about thirty seconds to get ready. She didn’t change her clothes—a robin’s-egg-blue boatneck, white capris, and black flats, each a perfect thing—and didn’t wear makeup, herself a perfect thing. All she did was wash her face.

As we were leaving the room, she noticed my fiddle in its case. “Do you play the violin?”

“I fiddle,” I said, and I felt the way I sometimes had when I was little and needed to defend my younger brother from someone older than both of us and hoped I could.

Sort of jokey, she said, “Will you fiddle for me some time?”

“Probably not,” I said.


The Pines was packed. We worked our way up to the bar, where we stood drinkless, waiting for one of the busy bartenders. Standing there, I said aloud what I’d been noticing all weekend: “Does everyone seem unusually good-looking to you?”

She looked around. “No.”

I thought maybe her no was retaliation for my probably not. I said, “The reason I said I wouldn’t play my fiddle for you. . . I don’t really play for anyone.”

“Why not?”

I didn’t want to tell her that I wasn’t good enough to play for any­one, so I made my face look like I was pondering the question until one of the bartenders came over to us. He was an older guy who turned out to be the owner. “What can I get you girls?”

“Hello,” Venice said.

The man’s expression didn’t change.

“I’ve been traveling all day,” she told him, “so I need something really, really good.”

All around us other student drinkers were waiting to order.

She said, “What kind of red wine do you have?” But right away, she said, “No,” and again, “No.” “Cassis?” she said to herself. “Cam­pan?” As far as I knew, she was naming towns that surrounded Entebbe.

She brightened: Something fruity might revive her—a piña colada, maybe, or a daiquiri. Did he use fresh fruit? He didn’t.

“Maybe bourbon,” she said. Could he make a mint julep?

He knew his customer now and said, “I don’t have mint.”

“No mint,” she repeated, but she agreed to it, with a sigh, as though she was to face many deprivations here that had been previ­ously unknown to her.

I asked for a White Russian, the drink I’d ordered at bars on the New Jersey shore, where I’d bused tables that summer.

She looked at me like we’d been disagreeing and now she suddenly saw my point. “Two,” she said, and the bartender spilled out the bourbon he’d already poured into a glass.

I paid for our drinks—she said she’d used up her dollars on the cab and had only francs and lira—and while I was waiting for my change, I noticed one guy looking in our direction. He said something to the guys he was with, and they looked over, too.

We’d barely sat down when one of them came over to us.

“Hi,” he said. He was cute and, like so many students at Rogers, blond; only Scandinavia could claim a higher blond-to-brunette ratio.

“Hi,” I said.

He asked if we were freshmen, and I said we were, and I might as well have said, You can kiss me if you want to.

Then Venice jumped in, introducing both of us, and I understood that she was being efficient rather than friendly, and he did, too; in­troducing himself, he seemed slightly crestfallen.

Once she’d learned his name, she used it: “Tad,” she said and told him how tired she was and that she’d been traveling all day and would he please forgive her?—she was incapable of conversation.

“Sure,” he said. “Absolutely.”

But he didn’t go, maybe because his crowd of friends was watch­ing. He said, “Where are you coming from?”

She looked at him for a long moment, a reprimand, before saying, “Antibes.”

His “wow” had more bravado in it than mine, but I could tell he was a fellow untraveler when he immediately turned the conversation back to the world he knew: “Where are you living?”

Venice had given him a chance to exit gracefully, and he was not taking it; now she answered in the perfunctory manner of filling out a form: “Bancroft.”

“Nice,” he said. “Bancroft is nice.”

She looked away from him to me, a signal to resume our conversa­tion. He was looking at me, too, now, for help. It was hard for me not to give it to him, but I could see that this was between them, and my role was auxiliary—I was the nurse and she was the doctor; I was the nanny and she the mother.

“Well,” he said.

She said, “It was nice to meet you, Tad.”

“Likewise,” he said.

I felt bad for him when he walked away and said, “He seemed kind of nice.”

Venice didn’t respond. She closed her eyes, and I thought that she really must be tired, and that Tad had made her even more tired, and that soon we would go home, and I would have a chance of waking up for my eight o’clock class and becoming the good student I’d al­ways meant to be.

But when she opened her eyes, her face was dreamy instead of sleepy. Almost to herself, she said, “This morning I was in Antibes,” and I thought, I’m going to be here all night.


It was after one when we got back to Bancroft. We undressed with our backs to each other, and I noticed that hers was evenly brown from her shoulders to her underpants—no hint of where a bathing suit top might’ve been, and I wondered if she’d just pulled the straps down and unhooked the back or if she’d gone without.

We were in our beds when I looked over and saw that all that sepa­rated her from the mattress was a beach towel. She was using shirts for a blanket. I said, “You want a sheet or something?”

“I’m fine,” she said. “Thanks.” She explained that she’d mailed her bedclothes from Italy a month before, and they were probably waiting for her at the post office. “But,” she added, “you know how slow the mail from Italy is.”

No, I didn’t, and it kept me from offering her my top sheet and bedspread.

We said good night, and I turned off my light.

In the dark, though, it occurred to me that she was probably the only freshman whose parents hadn’t brought her to school. I won­dered if that bothered her. I wondered if her parents were having too much fun in Antibes to leave and help her get ready for school and buy her sheets and connect her speakers and meet the other parents. I found myself feeling sorry for her.

I turned the light back on, and we made her bed. I had only one pillow but two cases, and I offered to stuff the spare with socks.

Her voice was smaller than it had been and apologetic when she said, “Do you mind if I sleep with your husband?”

I stared at her. It took me a minute to realize that she meant my reading pillow—it was corduroy with arms—and as I handed it to her, I said, “Did you make that up?”

She said, “That’s what it’s called.”

It would be another year before I told her that at that moment I’d thought she was a split-personalitied nymphomaniac. After that, out of nowhere, she’d sometimes put on a twisted, sexed-up voice and say, “Do you mind if I sleep with your husband?”

I turned off the light again, and we said good night, but then she was saying my name—not addressing me, but musing. “Sophie. It’s a pretty name,” she said.

“I was named after my great-grandmother,” I said.

She said, “It’s old-fashioned,” which was what I hated about my name. “You don’t hear it too often.”

“What about yours?” I said, though I wasn’t sure what I meant.

She said, “I was named for the place of my conception,” and it sounded like she was claiming that the city had been named for her.

But then she said, “I’m lucky they didn’t name me Gondola. Or Canal,” and I went all the way from hating to liking her, and the dis­tance made me feel like I loved her.

Those first weeks, Venice caused a big stir. I’d go to parties with her— we traveled in packs of at least five or six to fraternities—and once we got there she was always surrounded.

But there were nights when she’d say, “Let’s not go,” and she’d act like we were cutting a class.

Usually we stayed in to watch a movie on television, a movie she said I absolutely needed to see—12 Angry Men, The Shop Around the Corner, The Best Years of Our Lives. We’d go down to the basement TV lounge and turn off all the lights. It would be dark except for the TV and the red of the soda machine and its everlasting NO CHANGE light.

I loved all of the movies she did, and The Heiress so much that I forgot all about Venice until the commercials, when she’d repeat the lines she liked best.

Her favorite came at the end of the movie: Years after standing Catherine up on the night they’re supposed to elope, Morris comes back, and he’s knocking and then pounding on her door, and she says to her servant, “Bar the door, Maria.”

“‘Bar the door, Maria,’” Venice said. “The rallying cry of jilted women everywhere.”


In her closet, Venice kept a bottle of Shooting Sherry, just a regular medium-dry sherry, but its name made me think of hounds and horses, plaid blankets, and roaring fires. Some nights after studying we’d drink it out of glasses she’d taken from the dining hail. We’d lie on our beds and talk. I’d smoke cigarettes.

She’d talk to me about a book she’d read for a class—she kept up with her reading, as I never could—or she’d mention an article from the New York Times, which she read every day, as no one else did. Or she’d read aloud from a novel she was crazy about; that fall it was Lolita, and in the winter Anna Karenina.


While some readers may prefer more continuity than the vignettes of The Wonder Spot provides, I found the sampling of episodes in Sophie’s life to be a fine way of coming to know her character.


Steve Hopkins, July 25, 2005



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the August 2005 issue of Executive Times


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