The problem with most romantic comedies is that they are thoroughly depressing, thanks to a dismally narrow world view. It’s more uplifting to read a misery memoir or a spot of potato-famine fiction and reflect on how much worse things could be.
But Toni Jordan doesn’t trade, and has never traded, in the meagre brand of romantic comedy that gives the genre a bad name. Perhaps that’s why her novels, especially Addition and Fall Girl, have been so successful. They contain healthy doses of satire and sarcasm, making the happy – or happyish – endings somehow more real and rewarding.
This is also true of Jordan’s fourth comic novel, Our Tiny, Useless Hearts, which draws heavily from the traditions of screwball and farce. When jilted wife Caroline chases her husband and his new lover to Queensland, she leaves her sister Janice in charge of her two children at her home in Melbourne. Over the course of a weekend, Janice receives regular visits from Caroline’s libidinous next-door neighbours, Craig and Lesley, and a surprise appearance from her own ex-husband. In a string of unlikely scenarios, Janice becomes entangled in a suburban web of sham marriages, sham affairs and possibly even a sham divorce.
Jordan exploits her gift for dialogue to very funny effect. (The doctor-of-history romantic hero: “I’m not a doctor doctor … I’m a historian. Very limited emergency skill set. Sudden labour pains? Fractures and sprains? Useless. Urgent contextualisation of the Boxer Rebellion? Stand back ladies, I got this.”) However, some of the nutty exchanges and broader comedic scenes might have been shorter. Jordan does wacky well, but she’s best when witty and wisecracking.
When Jordan is not being funny, her writing is crisp and clever. This book might be self-consciously absurd but Jordan has some serious points to make, too – about unrealistic expectations, about compromise, and about ways in which parents inevitably fail their children. The moments that resonate in this novel are those when we retreat from the scene of farce and chaos and into Janice’s more sombre private thoughts. Jordan doesn’t cheat readers on the romance, either – conjuring a flawless but vividly rendered romantic hero and a love story that feels fresh and sexy. It’s an unusual novel that is both ludicrous and bittersweet, but Our Tiny, Useless Hearts is exactly that. SR
Text, 288pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 23, 2016 as "Toni Jordan, Our Tiny, Useless Hearts".
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