Working as a temp can be a way of avoiding commitment, but also containment.
In Rachel Cantor's playful second novel, "Good on Paper," the narrator, Shira, has been temping for a while. When she calls the agency to request a change from envelope stuffing, the agency head exhorts her: "Sticking is important. … Sticking means temp to perm."
Transitioning from temp to perm might mean clarifying one's life direction, and 44-year-old Shira, a grad school dropout and single mom, is not ready. Or so she thinks until she gets a telegram from a Romanian-turned-Roman poet, Romei, asking her to translate his latest opus: a work devoted to his ailing wife. This is an opportunity too good to refuse. Romei is a Nobel Prize winner, and Shira — before a disastrous love affair detoured her — had translated part of Dante's "La Vita Nuova" ("The New Life").
In this madcap novel, though, nothing is quite as it seems. Through the length of the narrative, and the story Romei keeps faxing to Shira — which mirrors Dante's work — she puzzles out his true motives. Along the way she nearly ruptures her co-parenting relationship with her oldest friend, Ahmad, and in the process almost loses her 7-year-old daughter.
This novel is about many things, especially whether Shira wants to risk taking more charge of her life story. After all, her mother left the family when Shira was a child, and Shira's first big love betrayed her. At one point she muses, after talking to her lover, Benny, "Weren't we all homebodies now, couch potatoes eschewing narrative? I had been, till I heard Romei's irresistible call."
The book is also about second chances, whether change is really possible, and about redemption and forgiveness.
At base, of course, it's about the perils of translation. When Shira abandoned her doctoral dissertation, she wrote an essay about traduttore/traditore — "the age-old notion that she who translates is both translator and traitor."
Shira learns that there is no perfect translation, whether of a text or a person. There is only a faithful attempt at understanding.
"Good on Paper" is well-suited to our global world: set in New York, with plot threads in Rome. Though at times a bit too tied to textual analysis of Dante's work, and a little too taken with wordplay, there is an absorbing story here, and affectionate character development.
"Good on Paper" is good, on paper.
Jeffrey Ann Goudie is a freelance writer and book reviewer and member of the National Book Critics Circle.