Kathleen DeMarco’s debut novel, Cranberry Queen, reminded me of what Bridget Jones’s Diary would have been like if it were set in New York. The novel’s format resembles a diary in that it chronicles a year in the life of Diana Moore. Diana is single, living in New York’s West Village in a “rustic apartment. Diana’s likeness to Bridget extends to her work: sleazy boss, her nemesis is the boss’s sycophant, and there’s a hasty resignation scene. Oh, and then there’s the man of her dreams. Mr. Darcy? No, a man named Jack. I am not alone in drawing parallels between Bridget and Diana. In chapter one, Diana says: “I am Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice.” The original Bridget Jones. Luckily, the similarities end there, otherwise I would reread a Helen Fielding novel.
DeMarco quickly sets the tone and creates a fast-paced character-driven story. What I liked most about Cranberry Queen was the dialogue. It seems honest, real, and emotionally charged. I wondered how a first time novelist could pull off such a feat. DeMarco is a film producer; no wonder the pacing is perfect and the dialogue crisp. The novel begins with Diana, age 33, orphaned when her parents and her brother are killed in a car accident. The resulting grief is amazingly and realistically portrayed as Diana spins out of control and sinks into self-destructive behaviour. Well, not completely destructive: she quits her job, continues her morning jog, and eats regularly (Pop Tarts only). As if this isn’t enough for one heroine to cope with, Diana is still feeling the sting of a bad relationship. Her ex-boyfriend, whom she refers to as The Monster, cheated on her and dumped her three years ago. Pain, pain, and more pain. But unlike most of us, Diana has friends who are caring and rich. They storm into her apartment en masse in an intervention-like scenario, pleading with her to see a grief counsellor. She agrees.
The very next day Diana decides to hop in her Volvo and head South, destination unknown. It is on this aimless journey that she meets people who will change her life. Louisa is everything Diana is not, a human vessel for nitro glycerine -- you never know what’s going to cause her to detonate, whereas Diana shields her instability under a steel façade covered in lies. It is not easy to like either woman. Diana stays with Louisa and her family in Pine Barrens as she waits for her car to be repaired. I was all set for a “torrid-life-changing-lesbian-affair” plot –- no such luck and more’s the pity.
Life-altering events occur over the next 48 hours. DeMarco pits Diana against Louisa: both are outsiders, both are hiding, trying to escape their past, present, and future. The battles they engage in are painful to witness, but you just can’t stop reading. The good thing about Cranberry Queen, and the bad thing, is that the characters are so neatly portrayed, no confusion as to what their motives are, like those old Westerns -– good guy, white hat; bad guy; black hat -– no surprises.
This book is full of interesting characters, but I would have preferred a deeper exploration of these wounded souls. Cranberry Queen makes for good weekend read or, considering DeMarco’s profession, a Hallmark made-for-TV-movie (not that there’s anything wrong with that).