Ambition kills love in new D.C.-based novel

Bad writers can win awards too. In fact, there are special competitions for them.

For example, if you type “fiction contest” into the Google search engine and hit “I’m feeling lucky,” you’ll arrive at a website with the welcoming words “Wretched writers wanted.” It is the website for the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which requires contestants to “compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.”

Melissa McConnell, author of Evidence of Love, a recently published novel of love and longing in D.C., might consider competing.

“On a Saturday I have to abandon the office to cut down bamboo in my mother’s backyard,” Evidence of Love begins.

It may not be as clever as last year’s Bulwer-Lytton winner, Dave Zobel of California, whose entry included references to Martha Stewart deveining shrimp and a love affair with someone named Ramon, but it certainly gives the reader a clear idea of just how dull, clich餠and trite the rest of McConnell’s novel is going to be. Evidence of Love doesn’t even have one juicy love scene to lighten up the dowdiness, though the main character, Catherine, does, post-bamboo and mother, get a peck from her boss, the vice president.

The Washingtonesque plot of the novel revolves around Catherine, a White House public-affairs officer, who is engaged to be married to Harry Bellum, a special adviser to the president. The novel opens with Catherine struggling over how her relationship with Harry has changed since they left New York City two years before.

Of course, D.C. has drained all the color and excitement from their lives, turning them into shadows of their former selves. Their previous life involved running around Manhattan in the rain with $4 umbrellas and eating pickles in delis decorated with papier-m⣨頢agels.

After an exhausting day of writing press releases in the Old Executive Office Building, Catherine comes home to find a note from Harry saying that he has left her. No explanation is given for the disappearance, though the reader gets a few additional details in italicized sections written from Harry’s perspective. Basically, he’s a special operative for the Marines who, for the love of his country, gives up the simple, soon-to-be-married life to pursue his military career. But that doesn’t come out until the last page of the book.

In the meantime, Catherine wrestles with her own feelings of rejection and loss, reminisces about her childhood and New York, drinks a lot of wine, has a tame love affair with the vice president, finds out her best friend (who is gay) has leukemia and learns she is pregnant with Harry’s baby. McConnell is not a writer who likes to pass up a plot twist, apparently — there are helicopters, train wrecks and FBI agents, too.

Having grown up in D.C., McConnell enjoys describing her native city and offering her own perspective on how it works. The Dubliner is a “cranky old restaurant,” Washington love affairs are “complicated” and the city is awash in the “conservative blandness of the bureaucracy.” Given that indictment, it’s not surprising that McConnell now lives in London.

For all the effort she makes describing Catherine and the nuances of her job, you never really get the feeling that McConnell actually knows what she’s talking about. Her best attempt comes when she walks the reader through the harrowing process Catherine must endure to write a press release, which, as portrayed here, involves fact checkers, copy editors and professional writers. As a former Vanity Fair and New Yorker publicist, McConnell would be familiar with how to compose a press release.

Of course, the insider-Washington details are not the point of the book; they are there merely to emphasize the ambition-kills-love theme.

As Catherine herself whines early on, “I want to know why we have turned into strangers who are at the loud, twenty-four-hour mercy of other people, we strangers with our unused pots in the kitchen and a drawer full of stained take-out menus, many that found their way from New York, trailing us like the crumbs of a morning-after bagel.”

Point taken, it’s hard to keep up a relationship if you’re at work 24/7. But more important, what is a morning-after bagel?