Mad Men and United States Of Tara writer Tracy McMillan’s debut novel Multiple Listings is inspired by her own life story, but she somehow managed to make it feel ludicrously artificial. Her exploration of how your upbringing affects future relationships seems promising at first, but falls hard under the weight of chick-lit clichés, paper-thin characters, and plots that go nowhere.
Set in Portland, the novel switches perspectives between Nicki, a workaholic single mother who runs a real-estate listing business, and her father, Ronni, a former drug dealer. Within the course of a week, Nicki’s boyfriend disappears, leaving her on the hook for both a restaurant they were going to open together and a new house they were buying; Nicki learns her son is in danger of failing high school; and Ronni shows up at her doorstep needing a place to stay after 17 years in prison.
Despite those seemingly big stakes, Multiple Listings is largely devoid of conflict. McMillan’s first book was the memoir I Love You And I’m Leaving You Anyway, where she wrote about coming to terms with the emotional scars left by her father—a drug dealer regularly behind bars—in order to make better decisions about her romantic life, and those same themes take front-and-center here. Ronni, who brightens up the book’s early chapters with his perpetually cocksure narrative style, quickly decides he needs to make up for lost time by being the ideal father and grandfather. He instantly bonds with Nicki’s son, Cody, and provides the male influence Cody apparently desperately needed to turn from a too-smart-for-school quiet teen only interested in Magic: The Gathering to someone with the confidence to run for student government and ask out a girl. As Nicki cloyingly explains to her father in one of the book’s many real-estate metaphors:
I’ve been looking at houses for my whole life, really. I thought that’s what I needed to give Cody and me a good life. Give him structure, you know? But it turns out… It turns out that what he really needed was you.
Ronni’s love gives Nicki the courage to reject disappearing boyfriend Jake’s excuses and find Mr. Right in the form of a handsome guy working at one of the city’s hottest tech startups, who apparently uses Tinder to form meaningful relationships with women with teenage kids. Ronni even gets her out of the mortgage through some criminal connections that have seemingly no repercussions.
But as magical as Ronni is, at least he’s a real character, who spent his years in prison examining his previous heinous actions and reading enough self-help and psychology books to become an amateur guru. The other characters appear to exist only to support Nicki, with nothing to gain for themselves and an endless tolerance for her mistreatment. Wallowing in her emotions during her split with Jake, Nicki fails to return her contractor Miguel’s calls; he simply moves ahead with nothing but faith in their real-estate venture and makes only the best decisions without any guidance.
Even worse is Peaches, Nicki’s longtime best friend who shared a similarly dysfunctional childhood. While Nicki went on to earn enough money to make bad investments, Peaches is a waitress who never went to college, but the pair still has a weekly mani-pedi date where their manicurist, Hua, mediates their sibling-like bickering in broken English. When Nicki feels Peaches goes too far by blaming her for Jake leaving, she decides to lay out all her achievements: owning a home, having two businesses, being a college grad and a mother:
Every once in a while I have to say something like this to remind Peaches that our lives are not equal. Even when it’s in shambles, my life is a palatial estate compared to her one-room shack. I use this fact as proof of why I don’t need to listen to her, why her instincts suck, and why my way of living is better than hers—because it results in a better life.
Peaches not only forgives this absurdly entitled outburst, she never requires Nicki to contribute in a meaningful way to their friendship, existing just to help her better-off friend achieve her dreams.
McMillan seems to want to have it both ways with Nicki. She tries to build sympathy by talking about the past when Nicki was so poor she had to wear knockoff plastic shoes that made her feet stink in gym class. But she also constantly seems to be appealing to the Sex And The City set by name-dropping designers, detailing the stylish clothes Nicki is wearing, and peppering her prose with shopping-themed descriptions like, “There’s nothing like the feeling when Jake focuses all his love on me like this. It’s the same feeling as trying on a dress in a particularly good dressing room, where the lights are warm and bright and the mirror is slanted at an angle that makes you look especially skinny.”
There can be something comforting in stories where everything turns out okay and the biggest potential pitfalls to happiness are avoided, but that sort of happy ending should feel earned. McMillan fails to do that by giving her characters everything they’ve ever wanted based on suffering that’s mostly happened before the book’s first page. As a result, the plot of Multiple Listings feels like so many enthusiastic real-estate descriptions: too good to be true.