By now, so-called chick-lit has become so ubiquitous in popular culture it’s at least a little odd that the Capitol Hill milieu has largely avoided making an appearance in the Bridget Jones-inspired genre. Manhattan and London, after all, hardly have a monopoly on the supply of self-absorbed, overworked single gals and the equally narcissistic male jerks they all too frequently pursue in the name of finding Mr. Right.
Washington women can thank Kristin Gore, daughter of the former vice president, for bringing an end to this apparent oversight. Actually, they should thank Miramax Films’ Harvey Weinstein and the books division’s Jonathan Burnham. Those two enterprising gentlemen initially conceived of the idea (according to a report in the New York Times) and then solicited Gore, after Weinstein serendipitously bumped into her at a reception, to add the necessary dash of political flavor to what has become a mind-numbingly, predictable equation.
The result of this distinctly premeditated undertaking is “Sammy’s Hill,” Gore’s 387-page inaugural novel, which traces the exploits of Sammy Joyce, a neurotic 26-year-old health care analyst for an idealistic Ohio Senator named Robert Gray. As Sammy careens from crisis to crisis — her star witness at a prescription drug hearing turns out to be a pothead, her pet legislation is in danger of falling victim to a filibuster, “an abrasive talk radio personality” is out to get Gray — she struggles to maintain a relationship with Aaron Driver, a “hot” speechwriter for a rival, opportunistic Senator.
Along the way, Sammy regales the reader with a menu of neuroses, which range from the genuinely charming — her propensity to celebrate arcane holidays such as “the three hundred ninety-sixth anniversary of the first reported eggnog drinking in America” and her enthusiasm for befriending telemarketers — to the downright weird, i.e., the neck rash that breaks out at the first sign of any “sexual thrill.”
Unfortunately for Gore, her novel suffers from some of the same maladies her father’s erstwhile presidential campaign was often accused of, namely periodic lapses into condescending didacticism. The result is clumsy: part novel, part political primer.
“I hadn’t been able to understand how the government could continue to allow nearly forty-four million Americans, many of them children, to go uninsured,” Sammy (who one can’t help suppose is something of a Gore alter ego) laments in the novel’s opening chapter. When different versions of a bill are passed by the House and Senate, “the two could go immediately into a conference committee that would iron out their differences,” she later informs the reader, in full high school civics textbook mode.
Even the sex can be preachy and rather passionless. After a scant description of her first intimate night with Driver, Sammy is quick to point out that they’d “used protection of course.”
A former TV writer for shows such as Fox’s “Futurama” and CBS’ short-lived political drama “Charlie Lawrence,” Gore demonstrates a knack for pacing as well as for capturing the quotidian travails of a certain type of well-educated twenty-something American woman. Her prose, however, suffers from a propensity for cartoonish metaphor. Sammy’s “gray haze … bunched in a thick cloud” over her desk. A swig of champagne creates a “warm little Jacuzzi in [her] stomach.”
“In a place haunted by compromise, I wasn’t all that surprised that its spirit had crept into our relationship,” Sammy confides to the reader in an awkward comparison between Capitol Hill and her increasingly rocky liaison with her potential “soul mate” Driver.
Gore’s cast of supporting political characters lift heavily, and rather transparently, from the contemporary political landscape. Readers should have no trouble identifying aspects of Howard Dean, Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards in several of her literary concoctions. There is even an octogenarian, Southern Senator by the name of Ernest Rollings (though in this case, he’s clearly to the right of the political spectrum).
Not surprisingly, a thinly veiled Bush administration comes in for plenty of criticism. The verbally challenged President Pile, who sports a “blank, dear-caught-in-the-headlights expression,” had “made a career out of failing upwards” and had presided over a “disastrous reign as leader of the free world.”
“I didn’t mean to be so callous, but having a s****y president was something I took personally,” Sammy says. And in one of the novel’s more ironically biographical lines, Gore’s heroine divulges, “I hadn’t had very good experiences with Florida up until now.”