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Princeton Author's Novel Shows 'Real Life Is Crazier Than Fiction'

Candace Braun

Fiction, no matter how absurd, can parallel reality, says Princeton author Jenny McPhee, whose novel, No Ordinary Matter, has several plot twists that tie into the human neurosis.

The author read from her new book at the Princeton Public Library last Wednesday. Her hometown was the second-to-last stop on her book tour.

Ms. McPhee comes from a family of writers. Her father is the Pulitzer-Prize winning author John McPhee, and her sister Martha's book, Gorgeous Lies, was a 2002 National Book Award finalist.

In 2000, Jenny published Girls: Ordinary Girls and Their Extraordinary Pursuits, with her sisters Martha and Laura. The book is a compilation of interviews with various women from all walks of life, tied together by photographs taken by Laura McPhee.

The McPhees have many pieces of writing tied to their name, except for their mother, who likes to say that she is the source of her daughters' talent.

"All of us have published books that my mother takes credit for," said Ms. McPhee.

The author first began writing at the age of four, and says that some of her earliest childhood memories are of when she told bedtime stories to her sisters. She would tell tales of taking a magic elevator to faraway lands, or riding around on a pink elephant.

The author recalls always being surprised by her own imagination.

Her first book, The Center of Things, has been referred to as a postmodern novel. It tells the story of a tabloid obituary writer who has taken on the task of writing the biography of a famous actress on her death bed, while working on her philosophy of science paper and digging up information on her estranged brother.

Anything but common, this book was the introduction of Ms. McPhee's original writing style, which juggles various plotlines, while keeping the reader intrigued.

Her newest book, No Ordinary Matter, focuses on the relationship between two sisters who keep in touch on a monthly basis by meeting up at a local pastry shop. Lillian, a neurologist, and Veronica, a writer for a soap opera, decide to hire a private investigator to look into the unanswered questions that followed the death of their father 25 years earlier. However there are other mysteries in the sisters' lives that neither wants to readily disclose to the other.

Single but desiring a child, Lillian becomes pregnant after a one-night stand with actor Alex Drake, who later stars on Veronica's soap opera. Veronica falls in love with Alex, while Lillian is carrying his child, neither knowing the other's secret.

The plot continues to thicken, as the reader encounters the complexities of sisterhood, an impulsive marriage, a long lost brother, incest, several car accidents, and a musical.

The Reality of Fiction

In a recent interview, Ms. McPhee said that while her novel seemingly pokes fun at the ridiculousness of fiction, it is actually a more accurate account of reality than most people would think.

"I've often found that real life is sometimes crazier [than fiction]... We try to strive for normalcy, but life is really nutty," said the author, adding that the stories she hears from people in her own life are many times more outlandish than the ones writers invent in fiction.

Reading a plot that is thick with disasters can also make readers realize that their own lives really aren't that horrible, said the author: "Fiction reminds us that it's okay to have a little craziness in our lives."

However Ms. McPhee isn't afraid to admit that perhaps her love of melodrama comes from her love of soap operas. She disclosed to her Princeton audience that as a child her two favorite afterschool pastimes were hanging out at the Princeton Library and watching soap operas at home.

She said that like soap operas, many books, films, and television shows carry an aspect of absurdity that people often overlook long enough to enjoy the storyline: "I think we really love to suspend our disbelief," she said.

Along with a love of melodrama, Ms. McPhee said she also likes to combine subjects she knows very well with subjects she knows very little about; for example, her desire to include an aspect of science in her novels.

"Making one of my characters a neurologist is very exciting for me," she said. "I'm not a scientist at all. I got a 'D' in college [science]."

The author also enjoys writing about siblings, as she grew up in a household of three sisters and one half-sister. However when asked which sisters she is describing in her latest novel, she says that neither character is pinned down to one person in her family.

"[The characters] are actually both parts of me," said Ms. McPhee.

A graduate of Princeton High School, Ms. McPhee received her bachelor's of arts degree from Williams College. She won a St. Andrew's Society Fellowship to study comparative literature for a year at the University of Edinburgh, and she did two years of graduate study at the University of Paris VII Jussieu in semiotics and philosophy. She also worked in the editorial department of Alfred A. Knopf for six years.

Her own works include The Center of Things, published in 2001, and two Italian books that she has translated into English: Paolo's Maurensig's Canone Inverso, and Crossing the Threshold of Hope, by Pope John Paul II.

Ms. McPhee is the mother of two sons, aged eight and four. Currently flying from London to New York once a month, she works at the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies at Columbia University where she teaches a film series.

Ms. McPhee said she intends to move back to the states in the near future.

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