Once Upon a Day
By Lisa Tucker
ATRIA BOOKS; 342 PAGES; $24
Lucy Dobbins' first marriage had been a sort of Cinderella story: Waifish, auburn-headed and formerly homeless, Lucy had only recently arrived in Los Angeles when she attended a party at the home of Charles Keenan, a successful film director whose morally inflected Westerns made their mark on the 1970s Hollywood. In a "Les Miserables" moment, she pocketed a piece of his silver -- and got caught. fixed-asset perfectPixelWide noGen: item_perfectpixelwide 19 e fixed-asset perfectPixelWide
But instead of angering Keenan, Lucy captured his imagination -- and earned a starring part in his film. In short order she became his inspiration and his wife, ascending into his mythic world. Together the couple held the public eye, making headlines when they married, giving interviews when they had children and serving as a kind of symbol of an American family ideal. But when a violent crime ruptured their world, it shattered their marriage as well. Lucy's life went into a tailspin, and Charles Keenan -- and the children -- disappeared.
Lights up 27 years later: Dorothea O'Connor, 23, leaves the secluded New Mexico compound where she was raised in near-isolation to hunt for her brother Jimmy on the streets of St. Louis. Jimmy has run away to look for his mother, whom he barely remembers but associates with a violent crime. Dorothea has never been beyond her eccentric father's carefully created sanctuary, and she's startled by her first venture beyond his grasp. Dorothea's bound to uncover a trove of family secrets: She knows nothing of her mother and very little about her father's life before her childhood.
Still, a chance meeting sets in motion even more than Dorothea bargained for. When Dorothea steps into Stephen Spaulding's cab, she unsettles his secrets as well. A former doctor-turned-cabbie who has been numbly driving around St. Louis since his wife and small children were killed in an accident two years before, Spaulding has also been hiding from the world -- and from himself. Something about Dorothea's out-of-time demeanor, acute perception, and eerie beauty capture him. After taking Dorothea on an unsuccessful hunt for her brother through unpromising St. Louis flophouses, Stephen takes pity on her, takes her in and begins to introduce her to the very world he's been hiding from. Beauty wakes up the sleeping prince.
Lisa Tucker's new fable about lives thrown off track and regained, and private utopias made, shattered and mended, is self-consciously the stuff of fairy tales -- the kind of story that hinges on the power of a day's violent actions or chance encounters to undo or remake worlds. The narrative weaves between three decades and plotlines: Lucy, in Los Angeles, remembers the tragic incident that led to her children's disappearance. Stephen ponders what on earth to do with the beautiful, eccentric girl whom he finds himself, against all odds, spending day after day with. And Dorothea, whose comically polite voice reflects her isolated upbringing, works to make sense of the ghosts that haunt her brother even as she discovers a world of Wal-Mart, VCR movies and bookstores.
Dorothea is particularly fun to observe as she reads and watches and consumes her way into a new world: She knows a great deal about etymology, encyclopedias and the history of literature, but finds things like bottled pickles, tight skirts and sitcoms fascinating. Her meandering, sweet-but-not-cloying meditations on adjusting to her new surroundings break up the omniscient voice narrating the other sections -- flashbacks to early years of Lucy's marriage, scenes of Stephen waking up fascinated and mildly alarmed by his growing desire for his unexpected houseguest and sections on present-day Lucy, still in Los Angeles, settled in a new marriage, still missing the children she lost years ago.
Because the book is charged with the sense that life is charmed, that chance encounters can change fates and remake them for the better, there's a magical over-the-top quality to the stories, which might be either familiar or unpalatable if they weren't so charmingly written and woven together. If, by some chance, we have a sense of where it all might be headed, that doesn't stop this particular iteration from feeling engrossing. It's the right layering of cliche and odd angle to make for a good comfort-food story, and becomes the sort of book one wants to keep reading on the way to the airport, on the airplane, at night in bed, because it all tumbles together well, and because the kooky, off-kilter characters, with their various eccentricities, feel like a day's good companions.
As the plotlines weave backward and forward -- moving from Dorothea's arrival in St. Louis and budding friendship with Stephen, to the tragedy of Lucy's early marriage and to the mystery of the events that prompted Jimmy's father's mysterious sojourn to Mexico -- a feeling of pleased suspense holds.