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January 23, 2023

Review in Haiku: Starting Out Sideways

By Katrina Stonoff

Roseanna's husband
leaves, moves in with her best friend.
"What a putz!" says Mom.

I bought Starting Out Sideways by Mary E. Mitchell to see if I wanted to pitch the editor who acquired it, Erin Brown. But when I received the book, I realized it was exactly the kind of book I like to read. Heck, there was a blurb on the cover from Elizabeth Berg!

Starting Out Sideways is about Roseanna Plow (the name alone makes me chuckle), a woman with everything: a wonderful husband, a soul-satisfying career counseling developmentally challenged adults, and a wacky mother who (as described on the flyleaf) "resembles Donna Reed on drugs." Good drugs. Illegal drugs.

Well, OK, maybe Mom isn't part of the Perfect Life. But when Roseanna's handsome husband (the putz!) moves in with her best friend, Mom is ready with advice, lots of colorful epithets, and even a nice man who might replace him.

The novel starts, "My name is Roseanna Plow, and I came down the birth canal sideways," and sideways her life continues to go. In the first chapter, Roseanna makes dinner for her mother and father (who doesn't talk. Ever). She drinks a bottle of wine during and after dinner, and after her parents leave, she drunk-calls her ex at 10 o'clock at night. But despite a series of similar poor choices, somehow she isn't pathetic at all. She's charming and wonderful, and why any putz would leave her for a bimbo is beyond me.

And that's the best compliment I can give a book. I was annoyed with a fictional character for failing to value another fictional character.

Even better, with the exception of the Putz and the Bimbo, every character in this book is fully realized and delightful to spend time with. As the parent of a child with Down syndrome, I was particularly pleased to see several developmentally challenged adults, each of them as real as anyone you know.

One of my favorite scenes involves a young lady with Down syndrome who cleans a dentist's office after hours. One morning, she's still there when the dentist arrives. His office has been trashed, and she's crouched under the sink in the lady's room, her shoes and socks in a neat circle around her like a barrier. Why? Because she's seen a red rag, and it frightened her into the bathroom, where she spent the night.

Then, with the undeniable logic of a concrete thinker, she begins to bring Sponge-Bob pajamas to work with her and, after the office is food-service clean, she changes her clothes.

Roseanna tries to explain that we don't wear nightclothes at work because we don't sleep there, and the girl says, "But I did! I slept there." And with the certainty of rational thinking on her side, she refuses to listen to anything Roseanne says.

I chortled through the entire conversation. I have had those conversations many times with my daughter, when she looks at me with pity because I've failed to understand the most basic logic.

Starting Out Sideways is sweet and funny, interesting and sad and infuriating. Then, it's funny again. Maybe it's not Literature with the capital "L." But there are truths here we could all use.

Every woman who reads fiction should be reading this one.

Article © Katrina Stonoff. All rights reserved.
Published on 2009-01-19
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