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Alice Fantastic by Maggie Estep

Alice Fantastic (edition 2009)

by Maggie Estep

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415398,937 (4)1
Title:Alice Fantastic
Authors:Maggie Estep
Info:Akashic Books (2009), Paperback, 250 pages
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Alice Fantastic by Maggie Estep



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This novel tells the story of two sisters, Alice and Eloise, and their mother, Kimberly. Alice is a gambler focusing on horse racing, and Eloise makes stuffed animals. Kimberly rescues dogs. Honestly, that is as exciting as this book gets. It is written so that the chapters shift from one narrator to the other, each of the women getting their opportunity to tell their story.

With these interesting career choices and shifting narrations, this book should have been much more interesting than it was. Nothing really happens and what little does occur is boring. The writing style fell very flat. Each character was indistinguishable from the other and the shifting narrators made that even more obvious. I was pretty uninterested through most of it.
  Carlie | Dec 26, 2017 |
In a charming piece that manages to be touching in spite of itself, Maggie Estep spins the story of how Alice Hunter, her sister Eloise, and their mother navigate their way through very challenging lives. It’s a hysterically funny piece, full of gallows and self-deprecating humor. Novelist Jonathan Ames says Ms. Estep “is the bastard daughter of Raymond Chandler and Anaïs Nin.”

So yes, the sisters are so abrupt with each other and their mother, both in thought and word, that their outward, gruff exteriors may be described as hard-boiled. And though the author portrays the ever-present inclination among all three to express and act upon their erotic desires, this inclination never intrudes on the story; it always serves it as an integral feature that at times brings the three women closer and at other times drives a wedge between them.

This novel is about the growth of all three women, who are closer in age than most mother-daughter combinations. The women grow in fits and starts, through painful episodes, like the incarceration of a lover, and an unexpected pregnancy. Ms. Estep knows her subject, and doesn’t let any of her narrative decay into sentiment (which is warded off by wise-cracking and verbal bullying), or rancor, because eventually we know it’s no more than skin-deep. This is the growth that’s on offer. It will affect you; it gratifies with its balanced treatment and realistic conclusions.

I enjoyed Alice Fantastic more and more as I got into it. I’m glad I stuck with it because 40% of the way in, I wasn’t sure I would. Give this a go. Maggie Estep’s book is bright, clever, very well paced, and surprisingly affecting. ( )
  LukeS | Aug 4, 2015 |
Estep's best work ever. Met my criteria for a damn good book: made me cry and I didn't want it to end. Alice Fantastic is quite a stretch from the author's beginnings as an angry grrl poetess and writer of essays colorfully describing some of the more unique life forms inhabiting New York City and Coney Island. This book reached in, grabbed my heart and gave it a good twist. Wonderful. One of my favorites.
  Duranfan | Apr 22, 2010 |
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted here illegally.)

Back in the 1990s when I was a member of America's performance-poetry community, author Maggie Estep held a special place of esteem among me and my friends, as one of the only slam poets in history to successfully transition into the world of paper books; but this being the poetry scene we're talking about, where dysfunctional personalities are as important as the actual work being produced, this esteem of course came with a Roger-Marin-style asterisk, that Estep's books were mostly poetry-scene-type stories about poetry-scene-type people doing poetry-scene-type things. And so has Estep ended up having a career that's lasted much longer than the popularity of slam poetry itself, but only by writing about artsy people with trainwreck lives, in such low-selling cult classics as Diary of an Emotional Idiot and Soft Maniacs.

And so that's what makes her latest, Alice Fantastic from our friends at Akashic Books, such a surprise; because it's not actually an irony-laced story about hipsters at all (or, not really, but we'll get to that in a bit), but more a plain-spoken and sincere tale about women washing up on the wrong side of middle age, women who seemed like they had it all together when they were younger just to wake up one day and realize that they've become the worn-out, stringy-haired white trash they used to make fun of. Certainly, the Alice of the book's title is a perfect example of this -- hovering around forty, living in a nondescript home in Queens left to her by her now-dead absentee father, she used to be the kind of girl who hung out all night in Manhattan and dated junkie rock stars, now an aging professional gambler who most people don't even look at twice, who prefers the run-down environs of more urban horse tracks like Aqueduct to the pretty landscaping of a place like Belmont. She's the kind of woman who seems simply beat up by the world at large, who instead of friends has mostly acquaintances made up mainly of fellow full-time gamblers, whose only romantic interest these days is a masochistic, borderline-retarded drifter she can barely stand, the kind of permanent pessimist who seems many times to have simply given up on life in general.

This is then contrasted to Alice's younger sister Eloise, just about to enter her thirties herself, still dating the strange urban dwellers (the book opens with the death of her latest boyfriend, a Brazilian trapeze instructor), confused about her sexuality and what she wants out of life; and now add to this the sisters' aging mother Kimberly, living a lesbian lifestyle in the upstate hippie enclave of Woodstock (where most of the book's action takes place, and not coincidentally where Estep lives in real life), a former drug addict turned full-time dog saver. Stir together with the threesome's mutual love for damaged canines, a Kate-Winslet-type bisexual actress as a new next-door-neighbor, and a lot of confusion among all three as to sexual identity and relationship politics, and you essentially have the story of Alice Fantastic from beginning to end.

As you can tell, there's not a lot of actual plot that takes place in this book; it is instead almost entirely a character study, a slow-moving dramedy that almost exclusively focuses on the relationship between these three examples of "damaged goods," and how the shifting circumstances of their lives force them into a new understanding of each other. And as such, then, there's a lot of people who aren't going to like this novel one bit, and in fact I'm often tempted to be one of these people when usually confronted with slow-moving characters studies like these; but in this case I found myself charmed instead, because Estep pulls off the difficult feat of making these people truly fascinating just on their own, or at least fascinating enough that they don't need much of a plotline to propel their story, but to simply be let loose in a specific environment so we can watch them interact. It's one of those kinds of books, the kind to just sit back and languidly enjoy the mere atmosphere of, to not worry so much about what "happens" but to simply enjoy their company for a bit. And enjoy these people's company I did, because Estep has a way of really getting under their skins, of making them alive in a way that doesn't require much of a plot to move things along; she's one of those rare authors able to push a story along just on the strength of the characters alone, and to make you care about their fates even when barely anything is actually happening in their lives.

Like I said, it's not for everyone, and there are sure to be lots of readers today who will vehemently disagree with my assessment of this book; but for those who enjoy simply getting lost in a very compelling environment, among characters you end up truly coming to care about, Alice Fantastic is definitely for you.

Out of 10: 8.3 ( )
  jasonpettus | Oct 14, 2009 |
Very funny and off the wall story of two half-sisters, their ex-junkie, ex-lesbian mother, multiple rescued dogs and various men, some good choices and some bad. I love eccentric characters and this book was full of them. A good summer read. ( )
  ccayne | Jun 3, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 193335481X, Paperback)

"The storytelling has vitality and a spirit of rebellion, giving us hope for the future of all those bad girls with dirty faces and bad boys on bikes."—The New York Times

"There is about Maggie Estep's work a directness, a clear determination—a drive to cut through, to break through, to claw through—that is impressive."—A.M. Homes, author of The Mistress’s Daughter

"Maggie Estep is the bastard daughter of Raymond Chandler and Anaïs Nin. Her prose is hard-boiled and sexy; she turns a good phrase and shows some leg."—Jonathan Ames, author of Wake Up, Sir!

Alice Hunter is a thirty-six-year-old professional gambler living in Queens, New York. She is modestly successful as a horseplayer and enjoys her work. Though avidly pursued by her lover, Clayton, who she refers to as The Big Oaf, Alice's closest companion is Candy, a small spotted dog, and Alice likes it that way. When Clayton's overzealousness leads Alice to ask one of her racetrack cronies to intimidate Clayton into leaving her, a few things go wrong and Alice turns to her half-sister Eloise, a toy maker, whose own lover has just been killed in a freak accident.

There is fierce love between Alice, Eloise, and Kimberly (their unconventional mother), but it takes Alice's accidental discovery of an awful secret Kimberly has been keeping to truly bring three eccentric women, seventeen dogs, and assorted lovers together.

Maggie Estep has published six books, including Hex, a New York Times Notable Book of 2003. Her work has appeared in many magazines and anthologies including: Brooklyn Noir, Queens Noir, Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café, The Best American Erotica, and The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry. She has performed her work in a wide variety of venues ranging from Lincoln Center to Lollapalooza, Charlie Rose, and HBO's Def Poetry Jam. She lives in Woodstock, New York.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:35 -0400)

Alice turns to her half sister when things go wrong, and they discover an awful secret their mother has been keeping.

(summary from another edition)

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