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Good Afternoon

'Love Is a Canoe': Ben Schrank's self-help satire

Ben Schrank, author of "Love Is a Canoe"

Ben Schrank, author of "Love Is a Canoe" (FSG, January 2012) Credit: Lauren Mechling

LOVE IS A CANOE, by Ben Schrank. Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 342 pp., $26.

Good love is a quilt -- light as feathers and strong as iron.

A good marriage is a canoe -- it needs care and isn't meant to hold too much -- no more than two adults and a few kids.

These pearls of wisdom come from a fictional self-help book titled "Marriage Is a Canoe," written some 40 years ago by Peter Herman, a one-hit wonder now stumbling through his golden years in upstate New York, widowed, drinking, dating a woman he doesn't love.

Ben Schrank's new novel, "Love Is a Canoe," an enjoyable inside-publishing satire, hinges on a contest held to celebrate the anniversary of Herman's book by its publishers, Ladder and Rake. Up-and-coming editor Stella Petrovic has been ordered to boost sales of older books, and her idea is an essay competition whose winners -- the people with the best troubled marriage! -- will spend an afternoon getting advice from Herman himself. It's "The Devil Wears Prada" meets "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten," with a bunch of messed-up relationships thrown in.

The chapters alternate among threads: excerpts from the original book (one step above Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey), episodes at the offices of Ladder and Rake, scenes from Herman's life and the story of the couple who wins the contest, Brooklyn hipsters Emily and Eli Babson. Emily suspects that her ultrahot bicycle-maker husband is cheating on her; as a fan of "Canoe" since age 9, she is the contest's most eager entrant.

Schrank's setup generates a lot of fun, but there are times when you're not sure how seriously he takes his characters. For example, when Eli and Emily talk to each other, they use the formulation "I love that you feel (that, noticed that, etc.)" with great frequency. Is he making fun of them? I wasn't sure. I wanted the book to be just a little edgier, like one by Tom Perrotta or Martin Amis, but the narrative voice is more Mary Higgins Clark.

After everything goes kaflooey, as of course it must, Peter Herman is forced to confront his mistakes. "Now, looking back on the mess he'd made, he felt like such a damned sentimentalist under his cynical veneer. Or, he thought, as he wandered back to the hotel, was it the opposite? Either way, his sentimentalism was tightly threaded through his cynicism. Like a barber pole." That also describes "Love Is a Canoe," and I'm pretty sure Ben Schrank meant it that way.

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