Lisa Zeidner’s Love Bomb feels like wasted potential. Zeidner herself is a talented writer, and the conflict she’s chosen for her fifth novel—a scorned woman puts on a gas mask, grabs some guns, and decides to hold guests hostage at a wedding in Haddonfield, New Jersey—offers an opportunity for biting social commentary. But the story itself meanders, gets lost in saccharine chapter-length asides about the foundations of love, and loses all momentum before we get anywhere at all.
The hostage taker, or “HT,” has chosen the wedding of Tess Nathanson and Gabriel Billips, two well-meaning folks who met in Chad during a Doctors Without Borders mission and seem cheerful and fine. After the guests “crowded into the great room to await the bride,” the HT enters. Zeidner paints an eerie picture.
With her wedding dress, the terrorist wore what looked like an old World War II gas mask, bulky as a scuba diver’s. You couldn’t see her eyes through the plastic portholes, because over the gas mask she wore wraparound mirrored sunglasses. Her veil was far too heavy for bridal purposes—more like a burqa. Threaded from the gas mask to her arm was some kind of small black box, attached with what many of the guests immediately recognized as an iPod armband. On the box, a small button flashed.
In chapter one, the HT might steal the reader’s cynical heart. Her image is cool, she makes fun of the guests for their lame ring tones, and she seems more intent on teaching the guests a lesson than hurting them—despite her guns and the bomb she’s affixed to the back door of the house, set to ignite if anyone tries to exit through it.
But then the HT is gone. And, quite savagely, she’s left us with the guests—many of whom (on the bride’s side) are psychiatrists. And as they are wont, they are keen on using their skills to disarm the HT and defuse the situation. So they try to diagnose, discussing the likelihood that she’s bipolar or (clinically) narcissistic or even a celebrity stalker (the groom’s sister’s boyfriend is a B-grade celebrity with some off-kilter admirers). After they all show off for a bit, other guests decide Helen Burns—a “small, plain, quiet, soft-spoken, non-Jewish” therapist, also the bride’s mother—would be best suited to negotiate or even just communicate with the HT.
And here is where the problems begin with Love Bomb. The psychiatrists going on and on and on about what might be ailing the HT saps the story’s momentum. It’s not funny and, to make matters worse, it seems like it’s supposed to be funny. (Listen to these guys—aren’t they dumb?) But hateful gawking isn’t really a sustainable source of humorous content, is it? If I recognize that I’m just listening to a bunch of assholes droning about clinical explanations in a non-clinical situation, I’m just going to chuckle and want something more.
Helen Burns is supposed to be that more. She is, more than the hostage taker or the bride or the groom, the protagonist—even the heart and soul. In chapter two, after the HT has left everyone breathless with her shocking display, we are treated to a truly awful list of Helen’s anxieties about hosting her daughter’s wedding at her home in Haddonfield, New Jersey. An annotated version:
- The bride might be upstaged by her celebrity (future) sister-in-law
- She would have to kennel her dog
- Strangers in her house
- African men were invited. “Helen suspected that political asylum for the Africans might be the real goal. She kept imagining counterforces converging with Uzis upon her house.”
- To make matters worse, the presence of these aforementioned Africans might prompt some uncomfortable discussions of “brutal rape” and “flesh-eating bacteria.” After all, “was Tess’s wedding really the proper forum” for those “inevitable discussions about the fate of the dark continent?”
The trivial nature of Helen’s concerns is something I can write off—God help all of us if our very tiny and dumb concerns about similar situations are ever revealed—but not all this business about the “Africans.” It’s actually a deeper problem in Love Bomb, this weird preoccupation with ethnicity and race, and extends to our narrator.
While the guests plotted an escape, some argued. When “the Africans” were ostracized, to an extent, by the guests, the narrator wonders why the groom (who has a white mother and a black father) and his family aren’t more on their side.
You’d think the American blacks would be more open and welcoming to the Africans. But except for Colonel Bilips Sr., the couple of black guests from the paternal Billips side of the family joined the American whites in wishing the Africans had just stayed home.
I think Zeidner’s pawing at irony here, but really it’s sad. In 2012, one would hope everyone would be “open” and “welcoming” to some very kind people, invited by the bride and groom, who traveled across an ocean to come—not just the “American blacks.”
What I find truly abhorrent and disgusting, however, is a scene that plays out later on. After the guests have escaped Helen’s home and the HT, the Africans, dressed in “brightly colored African costumes,” decided to run away from the policemen and ambulances waiting for them. After getting directions to a train to Philadelphia from some skate punks, their luck doesn’t improve.
They missed one train, trying to figure out how to use the ticket machines, and the next train took a long time to arrive. But eventually a train did come, and they made it back to the city, where, only blocks from their hotel, they were mugged.
The black mugger was nice to them when he realized they were just visiting the City of Brotherly Love and didn’t speak much English. “Hey, man, sorry,” he said, but he still took all of their money.
Too dumb to use the ticket machines and too unlucky to not get robbed. My jaw dropped as soon as I saw “black mugger” on the page, but I do think Zeidner deserves credit for not calling attention to (what might be?) a pun on the Philly moniker by referring to it as the “City of BROTHERly Love.”
When we do learn what’s sparked the HT’s rage, it is compelling and interesting. After many winding and too-sweet asides in the book’s first half about the guests’ loves lost and found, it is gratifying to learn what set her (the HT, we learn, is named Crystal) off.
Still, Crystal’s compelling story cannot carry Love Bomb—though perhaps it could have with a lot more attention on her and a lot less on, say, Helen, whose aggrieved-white-person-tending-a-garden shtick really is just not interesting. An alternate (and better!) version might be all about Crystal: the downfall, the planning, the execution of the mission from her perspective. Instead, we are left with the forced sense that she and Helen have a special maternal bond—something that knocks Crystal’s badass rating down like two or three points.
I want to go back to this race stuff and clear it up a bit. I don’t mean to say one bad thing about Lisa Zeidner or insinuate at all that she’s got some weird racial hang-ups or, worse, is racist. I don’t think that. I think she’s written a very tedious novel that, for whatever reason, has a handful of moments focused on race (that may constitute a pattern) that really and truly made me cringe. Race isn’t taboo, but it seems exceptionally poorly handled here. Take that scene with the “black mugger.” It feels like it’s supposed to be ironic (I don’t want to get too much into her intentions here), which is just weird: you came all this way, Africans, only to be robbed by one of your own. Perhaps I’m reading it wrong; I don’t know. It feels…off.
Love Bomb, otherwise, just doesn’t deliver—and I wish it did! Zeidner clearly did some first-hand research on SWAT missions and the politics of the police force and the folks who work dispatch (this is getting into spoiler territory here, I know), and she is, of course, a gifted writer. But it, like its protagonist Helen Burns, feels weighed down by its largely unearned emotional seriousness.