In Cambridge, on the other side of the tracks
When a chamber pot with a literary pedigree is worth more than an Ivy education
" Warm" and "fuzzy" aren't the adjectives that usually spring to mind regarding Cambridge, Mass. But Mameve Medwed has devoted her literary career to bringing out the softer side of the home of Harvard. The houses may be Victorian, but the paint is peeling and the plumbing outdated, and the most-referenced restaurant is Mr. Bartley's Burger Cottage.
And while her heroines have Ivy League educations, they either work as grocery store ombudsmen, as in her second novel, "Host Family," or they dropped out before they acquired so much as an ounce of intimidation. In fact, Abby Randolph, the narrator of the delightfully titled How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life is so meek and downtrodden a cocker spaniel puppy could run roughshod over her.
Abby spends her days doing crossword puzzles in her stall at an antiques market, where she sells shabby bric-a-brac. "I'd always liked everybody's leavings, the discarded and dented bits and pieces of other people's lives." But over the past year, Abby's become the one left behind, and her psyche is feeling more than a bit nicked and chipped.
Her most recent boyfriend just left her for a customer whose silver he appraised. But Clyde's "apology" - several pages in which he details his infidelities and her flaws - and his defection isn't what has set her reeling.
Her beloved mother died in an earthquake in India a year ago, after leaving Abby's father for the mother of Abby's childhood friend, Lavinia. Abby's first love, Lavinia's brother, penned a "novel" about her childhood and their moms, and Abby avoids bookstores to this day. Her father, an eminent Harvard professor, has remarried, had three boys, and suddenly uncovered a well of paternal affection that was entirely missing when she was growing up. After their mothers' deaths, Lavinia, a grasping, self-righteous stereotype, scooped up most of their belongings - leaving Abby a few dishes and an old chamber pot. When a colleague suggests Abby take the pot on "Antiques Roadshow," experts tell her it belonged to the 19th- century poet of the title. (Abby's not a huge fan of "Sonnets From the Portuguese"; she's more of an E.E. Cummings gal.)
But converting the chamber pot into cash may be easier said than done. Instead of a gold mine, it would appear that Abby is sitting on a land mine. A series of misadventures occur, some funnier than others, and Abby finally starts to grow a spine.
The goings-on can get a little overwrought, but Medwed gives the novel a chatty, easygoing feel, and the sections dealing with the collectibles business are particularly well done. And while Abby claims this is no "reader-I-married-him scenario," readers looking for such a tale will be precisely the ones most likely to enjoy her transformation.
• Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.