Sophie Applebaum, the heroine of Melissa Bank’s The Wonder Spot, leads a strikingly similar life to Jane Rosenal of The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing. Both are witty, self-deprecating, and often underachieving Jewish girls from the Philadelphia suburbs. Both work in publishing after college, lose their fathers to illness, subsequently temp for a while, and end up in advertising jobs they hate. And, of course, both try out a number of relationships that don’t quite work before finding one that finally makes them happy.
The Wonder Spot is a fuller, more complex, and more satisfying book than the dated Girls’ Guide, an instant sensation when it came out in 1999, largely for its send-up of The Rules. Sophie grapples with the women in her life, finding that her mother, grandmothers, and close friends have the capacity to hurt her as much as any man. While Girls’ Guide essentially recorded an inner monologue, The Wonder Spot pans out to show us the world she inhabits and can’t quite fit into: her perfect cousin’s bat mitzvah; the home of her disapproving sister-in-law, who passive-aggressively labels the cabinets “Milk” and “Meat” after catching Sophie eating with the wrong spoon; family get-togethers with her grandmother, who is convinced that Sophie will be a failure unless she finds a husband.
“Things have changed,” Sophie tells her grandmother. “Women have careers now. We don’t care so much about, you know, men.” Her grandmother—who Bank has set up as the book’s villain—replies, “Is that so?” In the end, Sophie doesn’t seem so different from her grandmother. Trapped in a dead-end job she hates, she feels free and complete having met the man she loves. “Right now I am having the life I want,” she thinks to herself on the last page of the book. I wish she wanted a little bit more.