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BOOK REVIEW

Life after high school

July 22, 2008|Elisabeth Vincentelli | Special to The Times

Don't You Forget About Me

A Novel

Jancee Dunn

Villard: 282 pp., $24

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Considering she spent more than a decade interviewing celebrities for Rolling Stone -- an experience she recounted in her 2006 memoir "But Enough About Me" -- it would have been easy for Jancee Dunn to use the trappings of fame as background for her debut novel, or to write a roman a clef about debauched rockers. Happily, she shunned that crowded playing field; she did, however, pick an even more banal one, that of the high school reunion tale. Even worse: the '80s-flavored reunion. And yet Dunn's deft sense of pacing and her old-fashioned niceness make "Don't You Forget About Me" a breezy, entertaining summer read that never insults the reader's intelligence. This is a seemingly modest achievement that should not be underestimated.

The book's most compelling aspect is that its humor, largely observational, is always affectionate. "Don't You Forget About Me" doesn't try to compensate for the familiarity of its chosen subgenre with arch hipness, and it eschews the veneer of weary cynicism that coats so many books like green fuzz on a month-old piece of cheese. Dunn laughed at herself in her memoir; in the novel it's her heroine and possible stand-in, the gently hapless Lillian Curtis, who bears the brunt of the jokes while never turning into a pathetic doormat.

At 38, Lillian is a happy Manhattanite, shuttling between her "human golden retriever" of a husband, Adam, and her job as producer on the talk show "Tell Me Everything! With Vi Barbour," a haven for semi-washed-up celebrities. After Adam abruptly dumps her, Lillian decides to regroup at her childhood home in New Jersey. She even stays in her old bedroom, perfectly preserved by her parents as if it were the 1980s wing of the Smithsonian. Because she has, let's face it, nothing better to do, Lillian decides to attend her 20-year high school reunion. She'll reconnect with the old gang from the Bethel Memorial High class of 1988 and who knows, her then-boyfriend, the charismatic, unpredictable Christian, might even show up.

Like the quaint show she works on, Lillian is slightly eccentric and rather happy being out of touch with the zeitgeist. Her idea of a fun weekend is eating tuna casserole and watching "Singin' in the Rain" at the Connecticut house of her 74-year-old boss and friend Vi. "I just had no interest in contemporary pop culture," Lillian muses without any discernible regret. This sets up a clever way to defuse the book's blah premise, since Dunn suggests that immersing her protagonist in a warm bath of '80s nostalgia actually is a step forward for Lillian.

Indeed, despite the occasional gimmicky contrivance, as when Lillian calls a J. Crew phone operator for romance counseling, Dunn deftly pilots her story through the narrative shoals that lurk in memory-lane lit: references to the dorky songs one used to love and the dorky clothes one used to wear; pithy descriptions of now-balding, now-fat classmates; reminiscences of cringe-inducing love notes and drunken shenanigans. Dunn has such a light touch -- she seems to have a sixth sense for when the cup of fun cliches is about to run over and she needs to stop pouring -- that her often-hapless lead hasn't exhausted our goodwill by the time she learns her inevitable lesson.

Along the way, Lillian gets advice from her psych-professor sister, Ginny, and the spirited Vi, one acting as Lillian's auxiliary brain, the other as her heart. "For me, high school was a crude caste system made up of fleeting social ties among hormonally excited teens," the resolutely unsentimental Ginny lectures at one point. "And why those ties would create anything meaningful twenty years later is beyond me." It takes dozens of pages for this message to sink in -- a novel does need to unfold after all -- yet even then, Dunn mercifully refrains from oversoftening Lillian, who finds herself again blithely betraying a frumpy friend she had traded for more glamorous pals two decades ago.

While many Americans' fixation on their high school years would provide ample fodder for a writer with an ambitious agenda and an acid streak, Dunn isn't a satirist -- her descriptions of human foibles are just too good-natured. And one hopes that after "But Enough About Me" and "Don't You Forget About Me," she will turn her keen eye and nimble pen away from that first-person pronoun and tackle the wider world.

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Elisabeth Vincentelli is arts and entertainment editor at Time Out New York.

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