Ailing woman’s story creates a page-turner

Published: March 9 2014 | 7:00 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 9:20 am in

Just a page into Gina Frangello’s “A Life in Men” (Algonquin Books, 417 pages, $14.95), Nix, one of a pair of girls vacationing in Greece, articulates what the reader might think he or she has gotten into.

“Hand trembling slightly from her caffeine-and-nicotine buzz, she begins doodling idly, sketching a box inside another box. Inside the outer box, Nix writes: Anonymously Tragic Story of Terminal Illness in Boring Midwest. Then, inside the smaller, inner box she scribbles in tiny lettering: Glamorous Story of Young Women on Holiday in Sunny Greece = Story Suitable for Chick Flick.”

But Frangello isn’t about to deliver up a gauzy, romantic tale of friendship and heroism in the face of illness. Instead, “A Life in Men” is a far more frank — one is tempted to say brutal — look at the personal toll of loss, sickness and longing.

The novel is largely the story of Mary, a woman with cystic fibrosis who struggles to carve out a life for herself. Is she looking for adventure or some semblance of normalcy? How can she cram the most and best experiences into the shortened projections for her life span?

Frangello doles out the key back story details in small chunks, pushing Mary’s story forward while keeping it firmly tethered to her past. And when she introduces a relationship built on happenstance — or what might be called fate by the romantically inclined — she doesn’t wait long to upend the rosier aspects of the story. The book is something of a sexual odyssey, but the sex nearly always is driven by dark or desperate impulses, and, of course, Mary’s illness haunts every interaction and hope, however tenuous.

“A Life in Men” is a page-turner, in part because of its structure and in part because of Frangello’s sympathetic, though never falsely flattering, portrayal of Mary. Her story, though particular to her, feels universally human, as seeks connection, understanding, and comfort during the fleeting days of her life.

Rob Cline is a writer and published author, marketing director for University of Iowa’s Hancher and director of literary events for New Bo Books, a division of Prairie Lights.

Book reading

  • What: Gina Frangello reads from “A Life in Men”
  • Where: Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City
  • When: 7 p.m. March 11
  • Cost: Free

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