Imagine if Siegfried & Roy had written Water for Elephants: The deep animal wisdom and long-suffering majesty of a big cat allow a cast of misfits to ditch their emotional baggage and face life with eyes wide open.
In The Lion Is In, the new novel by Delia Ephron, it's telling that the big cat in question is a retired circus lion named Maurice, a sly homage to writer and illustrator Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are). Screenwriter, playwright and novelist Ephron (not to be confused with her sister and fellow screenwriter, novelist, etc., Nora, who is the one who has issues with her neck) channels some of Sendak's whimsy, a playfulness that never forgets the dark of our own personal monsters.
The Lion Is In is off to the races from the first sentence. We're playing catchup: Two friends, one wearing a wedding dress, the other in ripped jeans, are on the lam. Tracee might not be the brightest bulb and Lana can be some kind of ornery, but it's clear they are lifelong friends who have been forced into a hazy Plan B. More inscrutable is Rita, a timid and unremarkable 50-year-old hitchhiker who, upon hearing the young women don't technically know where they are going, says, "That'll be fine," and settles in for the ride.
For Rita and readers, it's a fun ride. The trio shores up at a ramshackle bar called the Lion where — surprise! — an underemployed lion lounges. As Lana, newly sober, sifts through shameful memories and Tracee puts her kleptomania behind her, Rita and Maurice have an interspecies mind-meld that results in a gangbuster bar show. (Byproducts: Rita stops wearing a bra and gets free of her abusive preacher husband once and for all.)
This is the first adult novel Ephron has written in a decade, and it's rife with the visual humor and easy metaphors (lion in cage = being hemmed in by our own demons) of YA fiction. But generously drawn characters and a swift pace make The Lion Is In a suitable beach-read romp.