North of Boston by Elisabeth Elo

Pirio Kasparov is a self-involved brat set to inherit her family’s successful perfume business. When she finds herself on a lobster boat as it is split in twain by an arrow…err, a freighter, Pirio defies the odds by surviving alone in the frigid Atlantic Ocean for four hours. She is eventually rescued by the Coast Guard, but her friend, Ned, valiantly went down with his ship.

Robin

Prior to the accident, Pirio’s life consisted of half-assing her way through her cryptic perfume job and cleaning up after her drunken bestie, Thomasina. Since Thomasina is such a hot mess, Pirio is often left to tend to Thomasina’s son, Noah.  Ned was Thomasina’s maybe baby daddy, so Pirio feels obligated to avenge Ned’s death and look out for his son’s well-being. She becomes determined to find the freighter responsible for the twaining. In the meantime, she finds herself courted by the Navy, who is fascinated by her talent for tolerating extremely cold water. With her ability to survive freezing temperatures in a single bound, Pirio joins forces with gimpy-handed journalist Russell Parnell. Elo makes a huge deal about Parnell’s disability, but she never explains its significance to the plot (although this lack of explanation is par for the course with North of Boston). Together, the two uncover a scandal at the hands of Ned’s former employers, a commercial fishing company, and reveal a conspiracy that the reader is literally incapable of ever anticipating.

Elisabeth Elo is a good writer; the woman clearly knows how to turn a phrase. Right off the bat, she describes the scent of a hamster cage as “a whiff of indoles and uric acid. Translation: shit and piss.” Pirio’s whole life has centered around her sense of smell, which makes her ability to pick out the components of rodent waste particularly entertaining. Elo’s style is often witty and humorous, yet at the same time, she creates an authentically dismal atmosphere. At times, I actually felt chilled as I was reading her descriptions of some of the Boston harbors and personalities. I found her writing style so alluring, in fact, that it wasn’t until halfway through the novel that I realized how completely atrocious her plot had become.

For one thing, Pirio’s presence on the lobster boat is something of a mystery. Pirio is Thomasina’s friend, but Thomasina and Ned were no longer together at the time of the accident. The exact nature of the Pirio/Ned dynamic is never fleshed out, outside of Pirio’s insistant claims to Noah that she was “just friends” with his father. I suppose it’s possible that Pirio was just helping out a friend, even though she had no experience with lobster fishing and her experience with work in general seems negligible at best. This fact also contributes to an inability to actually like Pirio. She comes across as a spoiled, trust-funded product of a prep school education. Elo strives to create a rough-around-the-edges and yet lovable heroine, but Pirio only seems fake. Her cushy existence negates Elo’s attempts at street smarts, resulting in a character that is unreasonably bitchy and lazy.

The rest of the novel is filled with the following (Spoilers ahead): random kidnappings and effortless escapes, exceptionally coincidental meetings with Eskimo friends, the discovery of a long lost perfume, more superhuman frozen swims, and the hunt for and ultimate liberation of hundreds of narwhals. This plot was so incoherent that I was half expecting some pirates and maybe a song and dance number.

I have to admit, I was skeptical going into a novel about the perfume industry, commercial fishing catastrophes, and a superhuman skill. Surprisingly, Elo calmed my nerves in the first few chapters, and the book moved forward relatively well. Then there was a yacht kidnapping. And coincidence after coincidence after coincidence. Followed by another coincidence. And the narwhals. Really, it was the narwhals that did it. Perfume and narwhals have no place together in any story that doesn’t involve a plot partially written by Will Ferrell. Actually, I would have still rolled my eyes had this scene popped up on Anchorman II.

The suspension of disbelief is, to a degree, required of most novels, but Elisabeth Elo’s novel is so stooped in unfeasible circumstances that it is impossible to take it seriously. Boat twainings and bum arms just don’t belong in the realm of the narwhal perfume industry. Hopefully Elo puts this incredibly irritating character to rest and tries her luck at a more coherent storyline.

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