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British author Helen Smith creates a quirky cast of characters in her novel, Alison Wonderland. When Alison Temple was young and idealistic, she dreamed of meeting and marrying someone, anyone, named Mr. Wonderland, because wouldn’t it be fun if her name was Alison Wonderland? That was before she married Mr. Wrong. After her divorce, Alison goes to work for the agency that helped her discover his infidelity, Fitzgerald’s Bureau of Investigation. Many of her assignments find her acting as a temp in offices and spending her nights in smoky bars, staking out potentially unfaithful husbands. One day, her employer, Ella Fitzgerald, asks her to investigate a pharmaceutical company called Emphglott that apparently is conducting some strange and mysterious experimentation with animals.
The investigation takes Alison and her best friend, Taron, to Weymouth, a small seaside resort town. Taron has an unreasonable but undeniable desire to find an abandoned baby and claim it as her own. Alison realizes the chances of them finding a baby are extremely remote. But she humors Taron, who is convinced that supernatural powers will send her a child. As they sleep in their car near the beach, sure enough, the waves wash ashore a box containing a baby and a pink blanket. They name the child Phoebe.
Meanwhile, there’s an informant at Fitzgerald’s Bureau and Emphglott is onto Alison. They think they’ve stolen Alison’s purse, but actually they lift Taron’s bag by mistake. Soon Taron’s friends are being harassed, roughed up, and interrogated. Alison’s neighbor, Jeff, pretends to cooperate with the enemy, but protects Alison by sending the bad guys on wild goose chases. Jeff writes Alison love poems but Alison is convinced they are only good friends. She eventually realizes that she is indeed in love with him, but does this truth come too late?
Taron, a flighty mystical optimist, soon prefers the club scene over mothering, and Alison becomes Phoebe’s primary caretaker. Alison is caught off guard by her affection for the child.
She considers, I never realized before that taking care of someone else makes you love them more than when they take care of you.”
Ultimately, Alison learns that trust is tricky, love can only wait so long, and the most fearful and dreaded of all emotions is regret.
Smith writes this story with a dry wit and entertaining magical realism. The colorful animated characters amuse and enchant. The ending was not what I had expected or hoped for, and I was disappointed in that respect, but the story is otherwise interesting and enjoyable. Recommended for fans of humorous literary fiction.