Book review: Tara Sering’s “Between Dinner and the Morning After”

I’ve got a really busy day ahead — paying bills, figuring out housing loans, talking to real estate peeps — so I thought of putting up this old review I did of Summit Book’s “Between Dinner and the Morning After”. You guys can think of it as a prelude since I am currently reading Chinggay Labrador’s “Popped”, also from Summit Books.

If one were to base book buying decisions by first impressions, it would be so easy to dismiss Tara FT Sering’s new novel “Between Dinner and the Morning After.”

For one, the book’s whimsical cover doesn’t exactly bode well for the book reader looking for something with a little more meat between the covers.

For another, the mark proudly proclaiming it as “recommended by the Cosmo Philippines Book Club’’ is enough to brand this book as anathema to serious readers, or at least those who think they’re serious readers.

It would be too bad if everyone just followed their first impression, because despite its waif-like appearance — it’s just 138 pages — “Between Dinner and the Morning After” is a bit more than what it appears to be.

The premise is familiar enough to any chick lit fan. Twenty-nine-year old Abi Cortes’ life is not going exactly as she’d hoped it would when she graduated from college. Rather than being a famous designer like she has always wanted to be, she ends up as an assistant to furniture designer Belle Bautista, who’s more concerned about the welfare of her beloved dogs than her employees. Rather than be in a passionate, fulfilling relationship, she’s stuck with Cris, who’s perfect for her family and friends but not for her.

However, everything changes when she gets an e-mail from Juno, with whom she spent a few magical days with in Dumaguete, and with whom she hasn’t heard from in eight years. They keep in constant contact, and pretty soon Juno extends an invitation for her to spend the New Year with him in San Francisco. Abi is immediately intrigued and infatuated with the thought of reliving a time when “she had never been more in love,” and decides to leave her present life behind and try her luck in San Francisco.

But on the day she’s about to leave, a group of quirky characters convince her to take a later flight the next day, and now she has a whole night to decide if the risk she took was indeed worth it.

Sering is aware of the conventions of the chick-lit genre and the fact that most of her readers — consciously or subconsciously — look for those conventions. She sticks to them as faithfully as she can; there is the quirky group of friends, whose problems always get pushed to the periphery when Abi needs support; the gay man with the amazing insight into heterosexual relationships; the old people who should know better but still end up doing slightly daft things anyway.

The first few pages move along leisurely on these conventions, not really jolting you but not turning you off either. You continue reading because it is genuinely interesting, in a comfortable, unfolding-exactly-as-you-expect-it kind of way.

But a fourth into the novel, a subtle change happens, hardly perceptible unless one is very attentive, and you find that perhaps you’ve greatly underestimated this spunky little book. Perceptive readers will also have thought of the twist that happens at the end of the novel halfway through, and yet when one is actually face to face with it, it is still quite a pleasant surprise.

Abi sat on the flight home feeling shellshocked. It was a confusing one hour plane ride and she spent the whole time replaying the moment of goodbye over and over in her head, struggling to locate exactly at which point the affair had become an affair locked onto itself. It ws great meeting you? It was great meeting you?! Why (was) the hell was she trying to look cool?

All the supporting players in the novel remain in the periphery, but since they are viewed through Abi’s clearly perceptive and intelligent eyes, they do not end up as boring cardboard cutouts at all, but rather as life lessons in themselves. As written by Sering, they fulfill their genre specified roles and yet manage to have that endearing charm that gives them life and makes them individuals.

That is not to stay that the book has no problems. Maybe it’s just the copy that I got, but there were quite a number of typographical errors scattered throughout the text like big, red sore thumbs. The few instances were her characters speak Taglish were also grating to the ear, making them sound like colegialas rather than twenty somethings.

Sering also becomes a bit preachy at the end of the novel, as if she isn’t entirely confident that her readers will understand what her novel is trying to say. It is one of the few discordant notes in an otherwise well-executed work that soars beyond its genre boundaries.

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