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The Hunchback of Neiman Marcus

The familiar woes of middle age are fresh and funny when captured in couplets

Sonya Sones has written four winning novels for young adults, including one singled out by Publishers Weekly for best children’s-book title of 2004 (One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies). In them she depicts the maelstrom of contemporary teen life with a light touch, even when addressing such heavy matters as bullying, mental illness, or a death in the family — and all that in verse, no less.

Now, turning her attention to stressed-out middle age, Sones has produced The Hunchback of Neiman Marcus: A Novel About Marriage, Motherhood, and Mayhem, likewise written as a series of poems. The engagingly accessible style of her YA novels remains intact, as does her understanding that when everything is driving you crazy, sometimes you just have to laugh.

Her 50th birthday, Holly Miller tells us, is
rushing at me
like a cinderblock wall while I try
in vain to slam on the brakes.

Her gynecologist informs her,
“You can stop using your diaphragm now.”

Her 17-year-old daughter, Samantha, is applying to colleges,
none of which
are within a thousand-mile radius
of home

And lately Holly’s editor, Roxie,
(who’s twelve years old if she’s a day)

has taken to texting her
from her freaking iPhone,
or her iPad,
or whatever the hell she’s using these days,
to ask, “WHEN CAN I C UR BUK? =)”

As for her husband:
Michael has oodles
of endearing attributes.

It’s just that
at the moment,

I can’t seem to think
of a single one.

So it’s not exactly shaping up to be a great fall, even though her 80-year-old mother reassures Holly,

“Your baby-making days
may be over, but you will always be
my baby.”

Actually, Mom is another source of worry. When Holly and Michael visit her in Cleveland for Christmas,

She’s admitted to having had
some mysterious aches and pains lately.
Though she’s refused
To see her doctor about them.

A few months later Mom falls out of bed, can’t get off the floor, and speed-dials her daughter. Holly stands there,

sweating clear through my T-shirt
while trying to figure out

how the hell to call 911 in Ohio
when you’re dialing it
from California.

At the hospital, her mother is diagnosed with a painful muscle inflammation called polymyositis and given massive doses of steroids, which make her hallucinate and bite her nurses. Or perhaps, casually suggests Mom’s physician, the well-named Dr. Hack, steroids aren’t the culprit:

“It could be the onset of dementia.
Or maybe even Alzheimer’s.”

An elderly, ailing parent. A child about to fly the nest. Menopause. Tensions in a longtime marriage. And certain irrefutable signs of aging, glimpsed in a department-store mirror (hence the title). These are familiar midlife issues, but poetry’s sharp focus enables Sones to keep them fresh. Separate verses spotlight individual moments of reckoning or recognition, freeing the author to skip the mundane connective tissue that a realistic prose novel requires. (Her poem titles also work harder than most: One about a dressing room is headlined “Chamber of Horrors.”) As the story progresses from Holly’s 50th birthday to her 51st, these vivid snapshots accumulate to form a fully dimensional portrait of a self-aware, generous-hearted woman who knows that her crises are entirely ordinary (a realization that makes them no less taxing).

Sones expertly juggles humor and pathos as Holly grapples with the challenging changes in her life. Samantha gets into the college of her dreams, but it’s 3,000 miles away. Ordered off those prescribed steroids, Holly’s mother sinks into a depression and stops eating. Michael disappears for hours on end without explanation, and Holly surprises him several times in covert conversation with a fellow mom far sexier than herself. Are they having an affair? With all these worries, it’s no wonder that Holly can’t finish her new book of poems, now a year behind schedule. She feels overwhelmed, threatened by impending loss on every front. Even the pepper tree in her backyard, which she and Michael planted long ago to celebrate Samantha’s conception, is dying.

It’s not giving too much away to reassure readers that things mostly turn out all right. They will have guessed from the warm, unabashedly sentimental tone of Sones’s verses that she will not maroon her appealing heroine in the depths of despair on the final page. Tears will be shed — especially when we glimpse Samantha in her new college dorm, clasping to her chest a stuffed animal from childhood — but they will be matched by smiles of rueful acknowledgment. Children grow up, parents age, spouses quarrel, and dead trees must be chopped down. But new trees can be planted, new poems can be written, long-delayed books can be finished. And Holly can settle down fireside in her living room,

…curled up like a comma
on my couch,

swaddled in
my husband’s velvet arms,

watching sparks
play chase games up the flue,

breathing in
our pepper tree’s sweet scent.

That’s a marvelous, moving image of contentment. And it’s deepened by the knowledge that even though loss and change are inevitable, they are never the whole story.

Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at The American Scholar, reviews books regularly for The Washington Post, AARP The Magazine, and The Los Angeles Times.