Book Reviews: The Zonderling by Kersti Niebruegge

27236830Heather is a small town girl with big city dreams. A freshly minted college grad, Heather, well-fed on cheese curds, fish fries, and the Green Bay Packers wants to move from her hometown of Poubelle, Wisconsin, which appears to be somewhere we cheeseheads call “up north,” in other words, not Milwaukee or Madison. Instead of being excited about their ambitious young daughter’s dreams, Heather’s parents are less than impressed and think she should put her degree in International Business to good use in Poubelle (yes, I’m sure Poubelle is a hubbub of international business activity). And besides where are you going to find a good fish fry in New York City? The answer is, of course, nowhere! Hey, I’m a fellow cheesehead; I grew up on fish fries! I love New York City, but the city that doesn’t sleep knows jack shit about fish fries!

Ahem, sorry, got carried away for a moment…

Heather defies her parents and moves to the Big Apple. Desperate to find a place to live after her first option doesn’t pan out, Heather moves in a women’s residence called The Zonderling, a place that once held some glamorous allure but is now past its former glory. But hey, it’s in Manhattan, not pricey as far as Manhattan apartments go and is prime location when it comes to striving career gals like Heather.

The Zonderling is clearly based on the iconic Barbizon Hotel, a women’s residence that once was the home of such beautiful ladies as Princess Grace of Monaco when she was still known as Grace Kelly and actress and writer Candice Bergen. Don Draper of Mad Men even once dated a resident of Barbizon (granted Don Draper “dated” a lot of women).

The residents of The Zonderling are a motley bunch, including Jennifer, Emily, Stinky Carrie and Normal Lisa; and don’t mix up Normal Lisa with Porn Lisa, okay? There are also older residents who have probably made the Zonderling their home since the Beatles broke up including Loretta who is crazy as a loon and makes life rather challenging for the other tenants and the Altruistic Army, which runs the Zonderling.

Residents have their own rooms but have to share bathrooms, a living room and a cafeteria with each other, yes, very much like a college dorm. Plus, the Zonderling has antiquated rules like NO MEN UPSTAIRS because apparently they don’t want sluts and other assorted harlots ruining the reputation of such a fine establishment, which makes one wonder, “Well, how did Porn Lisa get her nickname?” Perhaps, we’re best not finding out.

To pay her Zonderling rent, Heather signs up with a temp agency appropriately named Peter’s Principle Staffing. She quickly gets a job connected to the financial world of international business. Every day Heather has to deal with coffee achiever douche bros wearing Blue Tooths and watches that probably cost more than your car. Yep, a detestable lot, made only worse because Heather has a hometown connection to one of these douche bros who lovingly calls her “Granny Panties”-charming. Heather’s boss is a jerk named Vikram who pretty much lives at work, seems to hate his family, and treats Heather like gum stuck to his pricey leather shoes. I wish I could tell you these douche bros are stereotypes, but Niebruegge is spot-on in her descriptions.

Heather deals with both crises at work and at home. She gets chewed out for minor infractions at work and deals with a daily onslaught of insults and cutting remarks. Heather goes home and deals with petty arguments and the Altruistic Army’s rules and regulations. Will Heather ever reach her big city dreams and goals? Or will she go back to Poubelle and live a life she would rather not filled with harsh Wisconsin winters, various flavors of cheese curds and a serious lack of big city glamour and excitement.

The Zonderling started out strong, and I totally got how Niebruegge wanted to write a story that was at turns both funny and eccentric. But I thought it lost steam as it went along. Peter’s Principle Staffing was brilliant, but I thought Altruistic Army was way too close to Salvation Army to be clever, maybe Order of Benevolence would have shown more zing. Calling a Roman Catholic church Our Savior’s Devine Blessed Sorrow of the Super Sad Sacred Heart was way too much, and Niebruegge names for various reality shows just made me roll my eyes. However, her referring to the bank where she temps Corporate Responsibility and Purpose department as CRAP did make me giggle a bit.

When it comes to The Zonderling I will give Niebruegge an A for intention but a Z, I mean C+ for execution.