Lucy Ellmann's fans in the literary world are many and vociferous, but this is the first of her six novels that I've encountered and, to be honest, I found it a hard book to love.
She is renowned for her flights of fancy, explosive comedic narrative energy, and powerful rants on all sorts of subjects, and while all of these are present and correct in Mimi, I found that they tended to obfuscate the story, and led to a lack of emotional engagement. And what begins as a light-hearted romp around the borderline between romance and feminism becomes less convincing and more clunky the further it goes on.
The focus of the novel isn't Mimi, in fact, but Harrison Hanafan, a well-meaning but rather insipid middle-aged plastic surgeon based in New York who has settled into an easy routine of fixing noses and breasts, and feeling only mildly guilty about not contributing more to society.
Into Harrison's life, through a somewhat convoluted process, comes Mimi, a middle-aged force of nature and firebrand spouting a doctrine of extreme feminism, and causing Harrison to re-evaluate his life. At the same time, he has a fraught relationship with both his ex-girlfriend Gertrude, a cartoonishly awful baddie, and his sister Bee, an artist who has decamped to Canterbury and is struggling to make ends meet.
The book is at its funniest and most entertaining when Harrison and Mimi are courting; the mix of snappy banter, acerbic observations and copious orgasms driving things along nicely. But once their relationship is established, things get rather sluggish. And around two-thirds of the way through, the novel begins to seriously unravel. A catastrophic event causes the plot to take a more serious turn, but the narrative tone doesn't change to reflect it. Instead, Harrison continues on in his jocular, flippant fashion, and the whole thing jars rather badly.
A further piece of slapdash plotting leads to Ellmann's big finale, in which Harrison gives a long, rambling but impassioned speech at his old school's graduation ceremony, espousing the hard-line feminist ideas he has adopted from Mimi – an ideology in which all men are branded terrorists and all women should be given all money, power and orgasms in perpetuity. There is no obvious satire here, and it seems that Ellmann wants the reader to believe that Harrison is earnest in his pronouncements. Whether or not you agree with Harrison and Mimi's ideals is beside the point. Harrison's conversion from mild-mannered nice guy to ultra-feminist evangelist is unconvincing and, even worse, just plain dull.
Despite its serious subject, Mimi feels more like a stone skimming the surface of emotion, rather than sinking deep to the heart of the matter.