A grieving woman goes down a reckless path in ‘The Worst Kind of Want’

Bethanne Patrick

THE WASHINGTON POST – Melodrama gets a bad rap. At its heart, a good melodrama pulls heartstrings while pushing readers to choose sides, not unlike medieval morality plays. Really good melodrama, the kind modern readers relish, reminds us that any side you choose has disadvantages.

The Worst Kind of Want, Liska Jacobs’ second novel, is really good melodrama – not least because it’s filled with characters behaving badly. Narrator Cilla (short for Pricilla) Messing has reached age 43 as a Tinseltown producer by lazily surfing in the waves of her famous parents’ wake, but she doesn’t have much to show for her life.

As an adolescent, she was seduced by Guy, a talented hanger-on in the family circle, an affair she remembers with both icky nostalgia (“… unwilling to stop because I liked the way he watched me, only me”) and grown-up distaste (“He liked to show me off, I think”).

Still on friendly terms with Guy, Cilla hasn’t fully come to terms with what amounted to abuse.

Several reasons: Having already lost her father, she’s now weathering the steady decline of her mother to something resembling Alzheimer’s disease.

So Cilla escapes for the summer to Rome, where her brother-in-law Paul, a kindly academic, is experiencing trouble with his 15-year-old daughter Hannah.

Cilla’s sister Emily, Paul’s wife and Hannah’s mother, died three years before of breast cancer.

Cilla isn’t dealing with any of this very well.

And what follows puts her in league with other unlikable female characters, from Marcy Dermansky’s Bad Marie to Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, and all the way back to Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair.

She loves Paul and Hannah to the limited extent she can, but from the moment she steps on the tarmac at Fiumicino, Cilla manages to find trouble.

Paul’s close friends and fellow professors Maria and Tonio have a son, Donatello (known as Donato), who is 17.

Cilla sizzles when she sees him – “he has very light brown eyes, fringed with thick lashes and full, almost feminine lips that are slick and shiny from the pear juice,” she notices.

She knows she’s wrong – sort of; mainly she’s embarrassed about her ageing body. She also knows she won’t stop. Not when she thinks about his age; not when she thinks about her own age; not even when she discovers her sweet, unmoored niece has a crush on Donato.

It doesn’t help that Cilla and Emily’s mother favoured her dead daughter, who inherited her physical beauty, once bestowing Emily with a pair of garnet earrings to match mommy’s while giving Cilla a boxed set of movies.

Cilla is bent on revenge, but against whom? Her mother? Her sister? Herself?

As in all the best melodramas, The Worst Kind of Want ends with tragedy. If you don’t find it entirely believable, that’s beside the point. The point is to consider the consequences of a person’s malformation. Regardless of the plot machinations around her, Cilla – the broken and bent heart of this smart, sad story – couldn’t be more real.