Saturday, April 23, 2016

Book Review: "The Hopefuls" by Jennifer Close

The Washington, DC area gets a bit of a bad rap. Sure, there are people who work within presidential administrations and on Capitol Hill that are a little status-obsessed, and really only want to deal with those who have similar jobs. (I've attended more than a few parties in my years down here in which people literally disengaged when they found out I worked in the association management field rather than in politics.)

But this area is unique in many ways—random encounters with political figures still leave me a little starstruck nearly 29(!) years after I arrived, and you can't beat the magic of an inauguration, especially when it's a candidate you supported. (Getting stuck behind a motorcade when you're in a hurry immediately gets old, however.)

When Wisconsin native Beth Kelly uproots her cosmopolitan New York City life to move with her husband Matt down to Washington, DC, where he had accepted a job with President Obama's Presidential Inauguration Committee, she's a bit shell-shocked. It's hard to believe that the Nation's Capital can feel like such a small town (unlike the anonymity you can escape into in NYC), the pace is really slow, and all anyone talks about is politics. And themselves. And what they do working in politics. And others who work in politics.

With no real career prospects and no friends to speak of, it's a fairly lonely existence for Beth. And the other downside to living in Washington is their close proximity to Matt's family, ruled by a mother who thinks Matt can do no wrong, and who treats all of her daughters-in-law as if they are outsiders no matter how long they've been married to her sons. Beth tries to get acclimated to the city and her new life, but it doesn't seem to be working.

Salvation comes when Matt meets Jimmy Dillon, a charismatic White House staffer, and Beth becomes very close with Jimmy's wife, Ashleigh, a Texas girl who is utterly unlike Beth in every way. The two couples become very close, and when Beth gets a job on a DC-social scene website, things seem to be looking up. But as Jimmy's career seems to be rising, Matt's seems to be stalling, and his jealousy of the opportunities Jimmy is getting—opportunities that Matt believes he is more deserving of—it threatens to drive a wedge into their friendships as well as Matt and Beth's marriage.

I found The Hopefuls to be a really enjoyable and fun read. Jennifer Close really hits all of the right notes about the culture and interpersonal dynamics in Washington, and what it's like for an outsider looking in. Even things that may seem outlandish to those unfamiliar with the city had me nodding and even laughing out loud a time or two. (I can actually recall having a conversation with friends about how many of the Safeway grocery stores in DC have nicknames—the Social Safeway, the Soviet Safeway, etc.—so it was funny seeing that in the book.)

Close is a very engaging writer with a keen ear for dialogue. I enjoyed the characters although I found Beth to be a little too passive throughout nearly the entire book, and I kept wanting her to get angry or make a scene. I also thought that perhaps Close drew out Beth's unhappiness with the area a little longer than necessary, but it didn't really interfere with my enjoyment of the book.

If you've never lived in the DC area, you may be amazed or skeptical of the culture that Close describes in the book. It's pretty dead-on, though, but you don't have to know anything about this city to enjoy The Hopefuls. It's fun (and funny), enjoyable, and well-written. It feels like a great summer book.

NetGalley and Knopf Doubleday Publishing Company provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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