I'll confess: I adore so-called "Chick Lit" in all of its many guises, whether that means a Bridget Jones "singleton" heroine or a Jennifer Crusie-type middle-aged woman striking out on her own for the first time. However, all too many of the "Chick Lit" characters and plots involve myriad kinds of substance abuse (from caffeine to codeine and beyond) and self-loathing (cottage-cheese thighs, wardrobes lacking glamour, nasty boyfriends). So I found Robin Jones Gunn's new novel SISTERCHICKS ON THE LOOSE! a refreshing antidote to these other books, and believe that women of various spiritual paths will relish this different take on female lives and friendships.
Meet Sharon, a Washington State Christian wife and mother whose best friend Penny roared into town on the back of her husband Dave's Harley. After nearly a decade of living next door to each other, Sharon and Penny are separated when Dave takes a job in San Francisco. When Penny calls and reminds Sharon of their long-ago church-nursery vow to take off on an adventure together, Sharon is loath to leave her family --- even when Penny explains that she's paying for the jaunt to Finland to meet her dead mother's only sister. Unlike other Chick Lit heroines, however, Sharon has a steadfast and warm husband supporting her. When Jeff tells her he can handle hearth, home and three of four children (eldest son Tyler is away at college), Sharon faces her fears of flying and takes off with Penny for Helsinki.
Of course, no plot would be complete without tension, and since Jones Gunn has given Sharon a good man, she cannily provides a bad mother-in-law to ratchet things up a bit. Gloria, given to calling her daughter-in-law "Sharondear" and Penny "Daveswife," is not a one-dimensional caricature, but a deeply unhappy person whose constant woe threatens to unseat Sharon's calm demeanor. Knowing that Gloria is back in Chinook Springs spreading her own little garden of bitterness makes Sharon uncomfortable, and the various travel mishaps that occur during the first leg of the friends' trip make her even more so (many readers will relate to the lost luggage, airline crowding, and hotel miscommunications that follow).
Some of the scene setting seems tedious, but Gunn's portrait of two women smack in the middle of life rings true, especially when Sharon and Penny are annoyed with each other. The author's definition of a "sisterchick" is "Someone who knows the deepest wonders of your heart, loves you like a sister, and provides a reality check when you're being a brat." What's not here is all the binging and whining that mark all-too-trendy British Chick Lit titles, although they do indulge happily in chocolate. When Sharon and Penny come unglued, they don't let their relationship unravel --- they keep communicating, moving and praying. For small-town Sharon, the biggest joy and wonder of their trip may be realizing that other women of different cultures, ages and stages can be sisterchicks, too.
Meanwhile, the discoveries and experiences along the road from Washington State to Helsinki to London and Liverpool help the "sisterchicks" deepen their bond and tackle some deep issues. The fact that Gunn's Epilogue shows that some of those issues took time to resolve made everything much more realistic, and sets the stage for her future books. Next stop --- Sisterchicks Do the Hula!
Reviewed by Bethanne Kelly Patrick on May 7, 2003