Ruth Pennebaker's first adult novel is the too-long-for-my-taste title. Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough doesn't necessarily roll off the tongue easily. Other than that, Pennebaker hits exactly the right notes in her depiction of three generations of women living under the same roof.
All three are at crucial points in their lives: Ivy, the elderly grandmother, deals with the loss of her husband & friends, her family home, and her independence. She moves in with her daughter prior to the novel's opening. Middle-aged Joanie (or Roxanne, as Ivy irritatingly persists in calling her) is juggling a new career with a fresh divorce, her mother's not-so-short stay in her home, and her often-rocky relationship with her fifteen-year-old daughter. Caroline, a sophomore in high school, struggles with both her family issues and the social awkwardness all teenagers face.
Although the novel is set in Austin, Texas, Pennebaker spends little time describing the setting and most of her words on characterization. The novel is not plot-less, but more a study in character than a book driven by plot and setting. Readers looking for action and stunning description may be left wanting, but those who appreciate finely drawn, imperfect characters will be happy to find the novel. My amazement lies in her ability to write realistically from the perspective of both a teenager and an older woman.
Not only is Pennebaker skilled in the character-writing department, but she also excels in accurately portraying female relationships. In addition to the family relationships (specifically the two mother-daughter relationships between Ivy-Joanie and Joanie-Caroline), Pennebaker also explores female friendships of various types. Joanie has friends in the workplace and friends from her divorced-women's group, Caroline has a solitary friend from school and a too-young stepmother-to-be, and Ivy forges an unusual friendship with an unlikely waitress.
Pennebaker has written several young adult novels. She also writes a column for the Texas Observer and blogs on the Fabulous Geezersisters Weblog.