There are some books you can't put down, and others that won't even let you look away. Tish Cohen's new novel is both. Try to read it while ironing, and you will perma-press a pinky; do the same while making a sandwich, and you will end up buttering the phone bill. But as the summer's first terrific beach read, this isn't really an indoor kind of book anyway.
Both of Cohen's previous novels ( Town House and Inside Out Girl) are in development as films, and The Truth About Delilah Blue is sure to follow. She is clearly familiar with the cinema's propulsive rhythms, and has an almost Hitchcockian sense of how to uncoil audience guts and play double dutch with them. And yet Delilah Blue is a purely domestic drama; no wild-bird invasions or psychotic moteliers in sight, though there may as well be.
Twenty-year-old Lila Mack wants to be an artist. She's talented, but motivated chiefly by the desire to attract attention from mother Elisabeth, a Toronto painter who abandoned her at the age of 8. Unable to afford training, she works as an art model at a Los Angeles college, while still living with adoring father, Victor, who is in the first stages of early-onset Alzheimer's. When Elisabeth re-enters their lives, Lila learns secrets about her parents that far transcend the usual post-adolescent realization that wrinklies are people too.
Melodramatic yes, but that's partly why it's so much fun. The car going off the cliff, the cute puppy in peril, the italicized flashbacks - there's a lot of cheese here, but when it's top-quality Camembert, who cares? Most of the characters are admirably layered and complex, but the odd lubricious villain gets chucked in for colour. Best in show is Lichty (short for Lichtenstein), the art instructor who presides over Lila's professional nudity, and tortures her so that you half expect him to swoop forth at some point and strap her to a sawmill conveyor.
But subtlety is really this tale's strong suit, and that's best exemplified by Cohen's depiction of Lila's maddening, shape-shifting parents. Elisabeth is a fantastic character, a pouty narcissist who inspires pity, disgust and fascination in equal proportions. Ditto for Victor, so loving but so terribly wrong-headed, even before dementia sets in. Still, one never loses the sense that these people adore their daughter, unfair as they have been to her.
Lila, of course, has been caught in the middle all along, and the story beautifully captures what it's like to be caught between two parents who absolutely despise each other: the shifting allegiances, the marital narrative that gets written and rewritten until its child author runs out of mental paper. "If you didn't marry Daddy, you wouldn't have had me," the eight-year-old tells her mother, in a poignant bid to reconcile the warring parties. "You'd still have found your way to me," is her mother's illogical reply. As a result of her past, Lila has grown to be a person rich in contradictions. Self-lacerating and lacking in confidence, she is also girded by the experience of having had, in many ways, to raise herself.
What is perhaps most fresh and interesting about Delilah Blue is the way it grafts Freudian rumination onto the conventions of a mystery novel. Not that it's a complete original: In the end, Cohen ties her story up neatly in the way of other serious women's writers like Jodi Picoult and Anna Quindlen (lessons are learned, toys are shared). But this is a particularly strong, seamless and exciting addition to the genre.
It's also compelling on the subject of artistic ambition. In a lesser book, Lila's beauty and talent would triumph over all, but the question is left open as to whether she has much of either. Though she's a nude model, we get very little sense of what she looks like, apart from learning she has dyed hair and a "vulgar" birthmark on her hip. Her own drawing attracts attention, but perhaps not enough to carry her into an effective career. Whether she will ultimately replace her weak artistic motive - mother love - with something more substantial is a central and fascinating question.
Tish Cohen may never win a Nobel Prize, unless a throng of females with sand in their hair and sunscreen between their toes performs a coup d'état on the committee. But that hardly matters. The Truth About Delilah Blue is still a powerfully good read, perfectly timed for release under the hot rays of summer.
Cynthia Macdonald is a freelance writer and critic based in Toronto.