Reviewed by Lindsay Denninger -

The Biology of Luck by Jacob M. Appel


           Elephant Rock Productions, Inc. - October 2013
           ISBN 978-0975374689


The trope of the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" (MPDG, for short) is among the worst and laziest in pop culture. A term coined by film critic Nathan Rabin, the MPDG is, to quote the critic himself, "that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures."

At first glance, Starshine Hart, the heroine of Jacob M. Appel's new novel, The Biology of Luck (and yes, that is her name), seems to fit this type. She is, as the book notes, an "odd job queen"—a free spirit of a twenty-nine-year-old, taking lovers as she pleases and not really committing to much. On the evening of the day in which the novel opens, Starshine is set to go on a date with Larry Bloom, a New York City tour guide by day, author by night, who is writing a novel with Starshine as the protagonist.

The other men in Starshine's life (who include a lawn chair magnate and terminally ill deadbeat) see her the way they want to see her: as the answer to their own problems. But Larry is the only one to recognize her for who she is, not as he wants or needs her to be. Appel—a winner of the 2012 Dundee International Book Prize, as well as the Tobias Wolff Award and Walker Percy Prize, to name a few—puts a refreshing take on the MPDG: Starshine is allowed to be her own person, flaws and all, without being placed too much on a pedestal. This makes for a much better and well-fleshed-out story.

The structure of the work is also inventive—chapters of Larry's day as a guide for a group of Dutch tourists are intertwined with the chapters of the book that Larry is working on, documenting what he imagines Starshine to be doing with her day. Larry is a keen observer of life around him, and the prose of the novel is both funny and poignant. The reader simultaneously feels for and with Larry, rooting for him that this date goes well. Appel, who actually is a licensed New York City sightseeing guide, gives firsthand knowledge and adds a whole new dimension to the book; the city itself is an additional character, offering insight with its mumbles, grumbles, and idiosyncrasies. The Biology of Luck is a fine showing from an author with a fresh and essential voice.

Appel appeared in The Summerset Review's Fall 2012 issue, and his work has been published in well over a hundred literary journals. His storytelling never disappoints.