by Jennifer Close
303 pages, $26.95
By Margaret Sullivan
Although “The Hopefuls” is not a great novel, it has some glorious moments, the best of which is a long passage, early on, in which heroine Beth explains why she hates Washington, D.C. Very young and without a career of her own, she has just moved there from New York City, with her politically ambitious husband, Matt.
“I hated the weather in the summer,” she begins, “how it was so humid you could barely breathe.” She hated the Metro, “that it was so far underground – you felt like a mole by the time you got down the escalator, and I hated that you had to swipe your card to get in and out of the station.”
She hated all the pretentious young careerists in their boring suits with their government ID tags strung around their necks, and their government-agency acronyms.
And she hated that she had to drive, not walk, to get groceries – or almost anything. This may be the worst of it, in fact. One can imagine a single tear sliding down her cheek as she plaintively wraps up her screed: “I missed our neighborhood bodega. I missed it every day.”
But, despite these complaints – and they are not without merit as any transplant to D.C. can attest – Beth and Matt are in Washington to stay.
They are part of a wave of ambitious young people, a whole generation of “hopefuls” who had come to the capital to make their mark, and maybe make a difference while they’re at it. Matt works in the Obama administration, with ideas of running for office himself. Beth is along for the ride, trying to be a supportive spouse while she writes fluff for a gossipy website.
Jennifer Close paints the story of their transition and of their marriage with humor and insight, capturing with precision what it’s like to be in this company town during a presidential campaign – here, Obama’s re-election bid in 2012.
This is not far from the author’s own experience; she is a Chicago native who moved to Washington from New York with her politically active husband, and now teaches writing at George Washington University.
Her grasp of the details reflects that. (“I hated that you couldn’t eat or drink on the train, and I especially hated that everyone obeyed the rule, like they were afraid they’d be arrested for sipping a cup of Starbucks on their morning commute.”)
Since Matt’s job depends on the president’s re-election, they are both emotionally invested in the campaign. It takes a toll, creating a feeling of constant insecurity: “Everything seemed so tenuous. We could pretend that this town was ours but really it was just on loan.” And so it has always been in Washington, a place that hardly anyone seems to be “from,” but where many gravitate, sometimes to cycle out again when the political winds change, sometimes to put down tentative roots in the shallow soil.
At the heart of the story is the couple’s friendship with a charismatic up-and-coming politician named Jimmy, and his wife Ashleigh, a Southern belle.
The dynamics of the four-sided relationship take up many – too many – of the novel’s pages and aren’t quite interesting enough to carry so much of the literary burden. Close’s sketch of them, at times, suggests cartoon figures – the hail-fellow-well-met party boy, and the sweet-as-peach-pie bubblehead wife.
By contrast, the novel shines when it focuses on the changing relationship between Matt and Beth. Its humor rings true here, as Matt – who runs Jimmy’s campaign for a minor post in Texas – gives it his Type-A all: “Each night, he took stacks of paper to bed with him, highlighting and making notes in the margins,” Beth grimly notes. “Our sheets were soon streaked with neon yellow marks, but he didn’t seem to notice.”
The eventual troubles in Beth and Matt’s young marriage ring true, as do its descriptions of weekends visits with Matt’s extended family, including his pushy and chilly mother, and many forced athletic activities.
The novel’s all-tied-up-with-a-bow happy ending may be a little strained but we can forgive that. “The Hopefuls,” by their nature, deserve a little optimism as they make their way.
Keenly observed throughout, “The Hopefuls” is almost always entertaining, landing quite a bit closer to a beach read than a serious literary exercise.
It’s fast and fun, a little glib, and attractively written, with plenty of human insight.
But its most impressive accomplishment may reside not in its characters, but in its location.
Jennifer Close manages to give a memorable sense of place to a city that doesn’t have much of one.
Margaret Sullivan is the former editor of the Buffalo News and recently moved from New York to Washington, where she is now the Media columnist of the Washington Post.