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Phoning It In : It's sort of 'Little Women' for the '90s : HANGING UP, By Delia Ephron (Putnam: $23.95; 336 pp.)

August 06, 1995|Margo Kaufman | Margo Kaufman's latest book, "This Damn House," is due out from Villard next spring

After reading Delia Ephron's hilarious first novel, "Hanging Up," I had an irresistible urge to call my sister, Laurie--No. 2--on my speed dial.

"You've got to read this," I said. 'It's about a 44-year-old woman, a Los Angeles-based special-events coordinator, who spends half her life on the telephone talking to her two sisters--Georgia, the editor in chief of a magazine named after her, and Madeline, a fey actress--and her crazy father, a retired screenwriter who calls incessantly."

"Sounds familiar," said Laurie, a Dallas-based special-events coordinator, who spends half her life on the phone talking to me and dodging calls from a relative we believe is the reason Caller ID was invented. "But I'm only 36. Remember, I'm a lot younger than you."

"Eve Mozell, that's the heroine's name, is the nice sister," I said pointedly. "She gets stuck taking care of her estranged father. He's in the Jewish Home for the Aged and he has the Dwindles and she's waiting--dare I say hoping --for him to die."

"I don't want to be the nice sister," Laurie said, echoing Eve's sentiment almost exactly. She punished me for the backhanded compliment by putting me on hold and making me listen a Muzak rendition of "Born to be Wild."

Actually, any woman trying to juggle marriage, a teen-ager, her career and an aging parent can relate to the heroine's predicament, because Eve is immensely likable--sort of the universal Best Friend. Levelheaded, smart, congenitally unable to avoid responsibility, she's self-deprecating without being a whiner.

Her concerns are all too familiar. She wonders if a woman has ever fainted from the sight of her own sagging tushie. She worries that she's losing her mind because she can't remember the name of a short blonde actress from the '50s. (I fear that doctors will soon determine a woman's mental acuity by timing how long it takes her to locate her keys and sunglasses.) And she's unabashedly politically incorrect.

"I'm reading in People magazine about a woman who gave one of her kidneys to a waitress in a coffee shop where she ate breakfast," Eve notes. "I would not give one of my kidneys to a waitress even if I went to the coffee shop every single day."

She seldom loses her sense of humor, which is fortunate, because not only is her father dwindling, she's surrounded by a cast of self-absorbed eccentrics, all of whom would feel perfectly at home in a situation comedy. In fact, "Hanging Up" could probably be turned into a television pilot in under an hour.

Eve's husband, Joe, while well-intentioned, is usually off the emotional radar screen doing offbeat NPR radio essays about subjects like the woman who bakes six-foot cakes and ices them with Ping-Pong paddles. Her sullen teen-age son, Jesse, is dating a girl named Jennifer, who calls herself "Ifer" because she's a Kasmian, and in the Kasmian religion, four-letter words are good luck.

Even Dr. Ogmed Kunudar, the kindly Persian ear, nose and throat doctor whom Eve meets on her favorite invention of the 20th Century--the phone--has a kooky but compassionate mother the likes of which you rarely encounter in real life. The dialogue is sitcom snappy, too: fast paced, insightful and frequently laugh-out-loud funny.

The plot, such as it is, concerns Eve's desire to put a final positive spin on her relationship with her father, Lou, who after a lifetime of creating commotion is "metamorphosing into some beast, something that walks on all fours and grins for no reason." The Mozell family history is revealed in numerous telephone conversations, past and present. If there's a flaw in the book, it's that Lou Mozell, while manic-depressive and a bit of a drinker, doesn't seem all that terrible, compared to the parade of monster-fathers who regularly appears on talk shows and in Pat Conroy's books.

Still, I can't complain. "Hanging Up" is a charming, entertaining read. Ephron (daughter of screenwriters Henry and Phoebe Ephron, sister to writer / director Nora Ephron and writers Amy Ephron and Hallie Touger) offers perhaps the most realistic depiction of the complex interplay between sisters since "Little Women."

Mady, the actress sister, arrives at her father's deathbed bearing a videotape of her big soap-opera scene. Then Georgia flounces in waving the 10th-anniversary issue of Georgia magazine, which contains a heart-rending "From the Editor" message about watching her father's life slip away.

"How dare you write this?" I hiss at Georgia. "You didn't see his life ebb. I did."

"So did I," says Mady.

"Barely."

"Don't be so noble, Eve. You like that role too much," says Georgia.

"I just end up with it because I don't get any help."

"I resent that," Mady sneered.

I sent a copy of the book to Laurie. About an hour ago, she called from an airplane to thank me. To show her appreciation, she gave me something that she seldom shares with anyone.

Her beeper number.

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