Shrinking Violet summons her strength, with help from a literary friend

If Jane Austen is the literary grandmother of Bridget Jones and her chick lit cousins, Dorothy Parker should be known as the dame who launched a thousand quips.

While admirers might not have filled entire bookstore sections with work inspired by Parker, the writer’s famous wit is on full display in Ellen Meister’s earnest if occasionally plodding tribute.

Violet Epps, 37, is so well known as a movie critic for “the country’s leading entertainment weekly” that strangers sometimes quote from her reviews when they see her in public. But she can hardly speak up to defend her place in line at a restaurant, much less break up with the boyfriend she’s planning to dump there.

Then something strange and unexplainable — let’s call it Midnight in Paris-like — happens as Violet sits at a table in the Algonquin, Parker’s old haunt: The shy critic finds herself possessed by the outspoken spirit of Dorothy Parker, who remains attached in the afterlife to the establishment’s guest book.

Clearly, disbelief must be suspended. A historic figure materializing from the pages of a book? A woman who fits the exact description of a shrinking violet being actually named Violet? An editor at a major magazine allowing a critic to “self-edit?” Best not to apply logic.

Violet soon learns that she can summon her idol — who is sometimes seen and sometimes invisible — by opening the guest book, a practice that occasionally backfires but often lends strength in moments of need. The novel is propelled by Violet’s fight to gain custody of her 13-year-old niece, who was injured in the car accident that left her an orphan. A love interest emerges in the form of a handsome, pun-loving kung fu instructor, though that subplot just about crosses the ick line for reasons that won’t be disclosed here.

As the story moves slowly forward, the pleasure lies less in the unfolding plot than the growing friendship between the two and their eventual repartee. Despite Parker’s views on therapy (“Psychotherapists are as ubiquitous as screenwriters and just as loathsome,” she tells Violet), the women help each other work through insecurities and lifelong traumas until each can find some measure of peace.

Along the way, Parker drinks a lot, Violet learns to speak her mind, and Meister — the author of three other novels and creator of a Facebook page devoted to Parker — squeezes in as much biographical information on the real-life character as she can.

“God help me,” the fictional version mutters to Violet during one conversation. “I’ve skipped right over obsolete and gone straight to quaint.”

With this imperfect but enjoyable novel, Meister shows she has no intention of letting that happen.

Hannah Sampson is a Miami Herald staff writer.

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