Best to Laugh, by Lorna Landvik (2014)

Genre: Historical
Interest Level: 16-Adult
Best to LaughAfter losing her mother at age six and abandoned by a grief-stricken father, Candy Pekkala turns to comedy and then to pot to ease the pain and loneliness. Her teen years go up in smoke, but she pulls it together in time to complete a university degree. Now she is stuck in neutral, serving pie and coffee in Minnesota, watching Johnny Carson every evening with her grandmother while waiting for life to begin. A phone call from a cousin looking to sublet her Los Angeles apartment takes Candy to Peyton Hall, home to Hollywood hopefuls and survivors. It’s the late 1970s, and Sunset Boulevard is shabby but always entertaining. Her neighbours include a geriatric animator, a female body builder, a substitute teacher who competes on game shows, a fortune-teller to the stars, and retired nightclub owner down on his luck with a punk rocker son. There are more, and all are delightful characters with stories that slowly emerge. In this new place, Candy makes the decision to give her dream of stand-up comedy a try, a daring endeavour for a woman in the 70s. It’s based loosely on Landvik’s own personal history, and reads enough like a biography that I had to confirm it was in fact a novel. The writing is epistolary, occasionally switching back and forth between Candy’s childhood and her years in Peyton Hall. This is a gentle narrative, exploring relationships and life from the perspective of a young woman seeking joys and fulfillment. Landvik’s comedy translates well on the page, but she has a deft and wry touch with all human emotions. I was particularly struck by her almost off-handed self-reproach at the loss of a locket with her mother’s image: “… but to my everlasting shame and regret, one night after a keg party, I woke up to find it gone [p. 123].” She never speaks of it again, but you just show the pain still lingers. Landvik gets the historical details right, down to her grandmother’s cultural discomfort with long-distance phone charges. I do wish she had ended the story with the party following a long-awaited phone call from her agent – the epilogue was not necessary and tied up all the loose ends that readers enjoy imagining on their own. My thanks to NetGalley for the advance reading copy.
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