THE PROBLEM WITH MURMUR LEE
By Connie May Fowler
Doubleday, $21.95, 209 pp
Reviewed by ELLEN EMRY HELTZEL
Connie May Fowler is the kind of writer best read while wearing a cozy robe and fuzzy slippers. Her books celebrate human connection, the circle of life, and the need to be true to one's self while not forgetting the value of others.
All these elements are contained in her latest novel, The Problem with Murmur Lee, which will sound familiar to anyone who has ever tuned in to Dr. Phil or Oprah. Murmur Lee Harp, the central character, is a practically perfect person except for one small flaw: She isn't good at choosing the men in her life.
Or so it seems at first, in a book that combines the elements of a mystery with a novel about relationships and ends up on the path to eternity. How's that for genre-jumping?
The story opens by introducing Murmur Lee, a 35-year-old free spirit who runs a bar in that gun-toting, trailer-living part of North Florida where bulldozers have yet to uproot backwoods culture. But no sooner have we met her than she is gone, drowning on what was supposed to be a romantic New Year's Eve.
Was it an accident or foul play, or even suicide? That is the question, but it feels like a plot device rather than the central issue. This is a book that focuses on Murmur the person, not Murmur the victim. In a story narrated by both the title character and her grieving friends, Murmur revisits her troubled life and her legacy.
Born as the result of her mother's rape, Murmur knew plenty of rejection when she was a child. As an adult, she loses her daughter to leukemia while her husband deserts them both. She's bitter, but resilient. And when she meets writer Billy Speare (a nom de plume, to be sure), she thinks her luck is changing.
Then comes the fateful night when she falls, jumps or is pushed off his fishing boat.
The news is disastrous for Murmur's eccentric band of friends _ a Marine who has had a sex-change operation, a grieving doctor, a Harvard dropout and a yoga teacher with a bad attitude. In the wake of her death, their grief blends with doubts about what happened. They know some things, but not enough, about the woman whose earthy presence had meant so much in their lives.
In the end, Fowler tells a story that's far more reassuring than mysterious, which shows where her real strengths as a writer lie. She's at her best pondering human fallibility and the possibilities for unconditional love. The Problem with Murmur Lee is only a problem to those who don't appreciate the vagaries of the human heart.
Ellen Emry Heltzel reviews books and with Margo Hammond writes the Book Babes columns from Portland, Ore. Her work can be found at www.poynter.org and www.goodhousekeeping.com.