Man or Mango
Lucy Ellmann
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Buy Lucy Ellmann's *Man or Mango* online Man or Mango Lucy Ellmann
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
224 pages
May 1998
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Subtitled A Lament, Lucy Ellmann's brutally funny novel Man or Mango is more a fierce rant on the impossibility of love ever triumphing. Ellmann, who lived in Illinois and Connecticut before moving to England as a teenager, has previously authored two other books: Sweet Desserts and Varying Degrees of Hopelessness. In Man or Mango, she continues writing in a stylistic vein that prompted Polly Feversham of the Evening Standard to say, "Reading Ellmann is like finding bits of broken glass in your lollipop." She combines a quirky British outlook on dysfunctional relationships, reminiscent of Kate Atkinson (Behind the Scenes Curled Up With a Good Book at the Museum and Human Croquet) but far more ungentle, with an American sense of impotent, suppressed rage at happiness always staying just out of one's grasp. An effective collage of voices, lists, factoids and characterization, this is a thinking person's summer read.

Eloise is an unmarried British woman nursing a fragile and wounded heart. With the proceeds from inheriting her father's estate (her mother died when Eloise was just a child), she constructs a hermit's retreat for herself, a quaint Tudor cottage within whose walls she hides herself from the world at large. For herself, she creates an existence mirrored by her father's neglected bottle collection, "in undisciplined retirement, loveless and liquidless." She breathlessly avoids interaction with others and makes painfully specific lists of the recovery time necessary for every "damaging encounter," from an innocent glance from a stranger (ten minutes) to having verbal contact with someone in the next seat at a film or a concert followed by rejecting behavior on parting (days). Surrounded by a mob of half-feral cats, wary neighbors and her father's diminishing bottle collection, Eloise tries not to think of the man who broke her heart.

George is an American who's transplanted himself to England to write his epic ice hockey poem. He's left his home, his creative-writing teaching and his ex-wife back in Massachusetts, to come to the land of the great poets for inspiration -- and perhaps for the chance to run into Eloise, the woman he fell in love with while he was still married. He gets a gig as writer-in-residence at London University, but spends most of his time ranting against British sensibilities and whoring himself out to a middle-aged patron. He's obsessed with the notebook of one of his former students, one of the few who showed any promise and who was killed in an auto accident the same night he shouted at her for missing a class. The notebook is filled with story ideas and character sketches, most of which seem to be a cross between Kafka and Kilgore Trout. George seeks solace and recrimination in equal turns in the girl's writings as his own career and life seem to sink further and further into the toilet, and as he tries not to think of how he hurt Eloise.

As George and Eloise's tragectories move to an intersection at a resort on Connemara, a host of new characters come onto the scene, all moving inevitably to the point where their lives will meet up with George's and Eloise's. As the book and the characters draw nearer to their ends, the more surreal becomes the story. Everything will come together in an apocalyptic finale that is happy, tragic and as quirky as the novel entire.

Lucy Ellmann's use of devices like obsessive lists, ominous insect-life factoids and layered realities works perfectly in Man or Mango. This is not a typical mainstream love story, not even close. It's an adventure of words, heartbreakingly hilarious and, beneath the bitterness and fatal flaws, surprisingly hopeful. Man or Mango is a joy to read for anyone wanting to go a step beyond the obvious.

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