Love and Biology at the Center of the Universe is a charming novel, set in Fremont, Washington, the so-called "Center of the Universe" as claimed by the eclectic residents of this funky, offbeat village about 10 miles from downtown Seattle.
Having lived nearby in Phinney Ridge, which is cheek and jowl with Fremont,as I read the book I could see the statues that the residents dress up at the bus stop (It is officially called "Waiting for the InterUrban", and people dress the figures in everything from Husky gear to ballerina outfits for birthdays...it is always a comedic sight) and the famed Fremont Troll, as well as the statue of Lenin that competes with the rocket sticking out of a building as one of the largest oddities in the area. I found myself recalling the evening that Blue C Sushi opened in Fremont, and my family were allowed front row seats for the event, because I had interviewed the owner, a Mercer Island resident, for the Mercer Island Reporter. Somehow the kaiten sushi going by on its little conveyor belt seemed to fit in perfectly with the odd nature of the Fremont neighborhood. I also interviewed the drawbridge operators, and always enjoyed their neon-light Rapunzel in the window of one of the towers, so I was gratified to read that the protagonist of the book found it charming as well.
There is something so satisfying about reading a fictional character's fresh view of a familiar place.
Love and Biology...is about middle aged Mira Serafino, an "obedient daughter, supermom, loyal wife" and all-around 'good girl' who discovers that her husband of many years has been having feelings for another woman, though, other than a kiss, he's not really acted on them yet.
This sends Mira into a tailspin, in which she flees from her hometown of Pacifica, Oregon to Fremont, Washington, only stopping when her car breaks down in Seattle.
Mira is one of those annoying women who believe they can control everything and everyone around them to be 'perfect' or at least her ideal of perfection. She is also used to having her relatives tell her what to do instead of handling situations herself. Mira's not too good at dealing with crisis situations, or dealing with her own emotions, desires and her own failures. Her daughter can barely stand talking to her, because she feels her mothers lack of dealing with the 'real world' full of imperfection and ugliness. Her husband, though we really hear little from him throughout the book, seems to also feel that there is a wall separating the real Mira, the human being with emotions and desires, from him as well.
Though her nonna (grandmother) and father all counsel her to forgive her husband and return to her family, Mira decides to 'find herself' by staying in Fremont, cutting her hair, wearing more youthful clothing, smoking pot, and having sex with a younger guy that she barely knows. Mira also takes over a coffee shop called "The Center of the Universe" where she works to 'fix' the shop and fires those who are slacking off or irresponsible, such as the owners thieving girlfriend.
For an Italian woman, I found Mira to be somewhat wimpy at the outset of the novel...she didn't seem able to handle anything that she couldn't control into being 'perfect.' I knew that things would blow up on her because it is inevitable--life is messy and perfectionists are always fighting a losing battle.
Yet I enjoyed watching Mira make realizations about herself, her desire to be seen as a sexual being, her letting things go instead of fretting over them with such vigor, and her growing understanding of the truism that the only person you need to worry about making happy is yourself, and everything else will fall into place. I thought she fell into bed with another man all too quickly, especially considering she was still married and still felt she loved her husband, but somehow Mira needed that sexual reawakening to learn about herself and her needs, which had been subjugated to her family's needs for years. Shortridge makes a good point here, by showing how invisible women in their 40s become, how taken for granted they are by their families and friends. By moving away from her obnoxious daughter, for example, Thea now has to make some realizations of her own, and deal with the consequences of her choice of career. Everyone learns, and grows, just by having one stable person throw a monkey wrench into their lives by leaving town.
Shortridge's prose is like Italian wedding soup--rich and delicious, with lots of meatballs to keep it interesting. Her plot starts at a languid pace but develops a nice brisk rhythm by the 50th page, and never lets up after that. Her characters are so well drawn they seem real, and you find yourself wanting to give Mira a hug about every other page.
I thoroughly enjoyed the quirky atmosphere of the book, and the insights into female midlife crisis. Fair warning, you won't get away from this novel without some thoughts being provoked. You'll also be charmed and aggravated and fall in love with the wonderful characters. I know that I did, and I heartily recommend this book to women who enjoy chick lit and book groups looking for something with a few meatballs of wit and wisdom to chew on.