Harrison Hanafan is a plastic surgeon in New York. Every day, he slices and stitches deluded women, reshaping healthy flesh to pander to 21st-century aesthetics. One Christmas Eve, absent-minded Harrison finds himself prostrate on the icy sidewalk of Madison Avenue. ‘Ya can’t sit there all day, buddy, looking up people’s skirts,’ says a plump, sweaty-faced middle-aged woman as she hauls him to his feet.
This is Mimi, the antithesis of Harrison’s neurotic patients, and — it transpires, after a few more twists and turns — the love of his life. Harrison has recently parted from pretentious Gertrude, a woman who conceived a child by ‘parthenogenesis’ and ‘batiks without irony’.
Mimi is outspoken, generous, sexually inventive; her feet are huge, her flesh bulges out round her bra straps. With her, Harrison discovers that ‘True love is a FACT...Real love is ferocious.’
For the first two-thirds of the novel, the section concerned with Harrison’s life in Manhattan and his childhood memories of a small town devoted to the manufacture of chewing-gum, the pace and energy of the prose whirls the reader along. If you pause for breath, you might think that scatty Harrison, who can’t boil a potato without injury, doesn’t convince as a sought-after surgeon. You might even feel (whisper it low) that Mimi’s half-digested ‘feminist’ rants are a little wearisome.
But I could overlook such problems because I was thrilled by a love story whose heroine is both passionate and peri-menopausal — Harrison’s word, and I liked him for being prepared to use it. I was amused by his list-making (‘Why I Hate Bathrobes’) and intrigued by Ellmann’s inclusion of musical scores, even though I can’t read them. And I was bowled over by the references to Angela Banner’s Ant and Bee books. These fat little volumes, a perfect fit for five-year-old hands, recount the random meanderings of their eponymous insect heroes. Never before, to my knowledge, have Ant and Bee been celebrated in a work of literary fiction. Ellmann had me eating out of her hand.
And then, after 182 pages of chortling, misty-eyed delight, with me recommending Mimi to anyone who would listen — catastrophe. I’m reminded of that odd old song that goes ‘Someone left my cake out in the rain.’ Ellmann’s delicious, delicate confection collapses into an icky pool of mess.
It’s as if Ellmann panics. A sweet, sharp-edged Manhattan love comedy suddenly isn’t enough. She’s got to make things happen, and she’s got to preach about things that matter. I would urge you not to read the last third of the book, to keep your enjoyment in tact, but in case you want to get your money’s worth, I won’t reveal too much.
Suffice it to say that there’s a wholly non-credible mass murder in Canterbury (yes, Canterbury, Kent), and an excruciating episode about a duck with a broken wing. The story ends with Harrison inciting a high-school audience to ‘nurture the female orgasm, guys’, an ill-judged scene that unfortunately does feminism no favours.
That’s the end of the story, but not of the book. There are another 50-plus pages of appendices. I had been looking forward to this extra excursion into the whimsical wit of Harrison Hanafan, but by the time I got there I couldn’t bring myself to do more than skim them. Ellmann’s writing is richly imaginative, but lacks perspective and restraint. A revival of the ancient art of editing is long overdue.