Monday, October 14, 2013

AT FIRST SIGHT by Stephen J. Cannell

Stephen J. Cannell’s fourteenth novel At First Sight received mixed reviews from the critics when it was released in 2008.  Publisher’s Weekly called it “disappointing,” and Booklist said it “might be his best novel yet.”  After reading it this past weekend I’m leaning more towards Booklist’s opinion than PW’s. 

Chick Best is a self-made millionaire.  He hit it big with an Amazon-type Internet company, but the good days are gone.  Now he is stuck with an expensive weight lifting wife, an angry drug addicted daughter, and selling his company for pennies on the dollar.  And worst, he is losing his credentials—the envy his wealth and possessions generates in others.  Suffice it to say Chick is a pathetically shallow man.

Chick and his family vacations in Maui each Christmas, and Chick’s dead end trajectory gets a lift when he spots the most beautiful woman he has ever seen.  The woman is soft in that feminine way and gorgeous, which is the complete opposite of his hard body wife who spends more time discussing abs, quads, workout programs, and scowling (at least at Chick) than anything else.   
He immediately formulates a plan to meet the woman (Paige Ellis), who is married to a likable old money school teacher who is more concerned with learning disabled children than wealth.  A mind set Chick finds confusing and annoying.  The two couples become friends during the week, and when the vacation is over Chick can’t get Paige Ellis out of his mind.  On a New York business trip he detours to the Ellis’s North Carolina home where he begins his plan to win Paige.
At First Sight is written in both first and third person.  There are three acts—the first is narrated by Chick alone, the second is narrated by both Chick in first person and Paige in third person, and the third is narrated by Paige in first person and Chick in third person.  The changing perspective creates tension and builds doubt between the reader and Chick.  Chick is a sympathetic narrator in the first act, but as the reader is exposed to additional information from outside it becomes clear Chick is less than trustworthy.
While Chick may be less than honest, his portions of the novel are pure gold.  He narrates with a snarky wit, which is funny in the first half of the novel, but as his true character is revealed it becomes ominous.  He turns out to be such a loathsome character I found myself uncomfortable with my original opinion of both him and his and wit; as though liking him in the early stages of the novel illuminated something unsavory about my own character.
At First Sight is pretty terrific.  It is a fast moving story, which is cleverly plotted and told with a flash bang style and wit.  There are moments Chick’s narrative is laugh out loud funny—particularly when he is describing his daughter, wife, and his wife’s trainer Mickey D:

“I let it happen, though, because I didn’t think in four days Evelyn would be able to turn Paige’s softness into the kind of anatomical gristle that she had struggled so hard to achieve for herself.”
At First Sight is the best of the handful of Stephen J. Cannell’s novels I have read, and it’s a shame he didn’t write fewer of his Shane Scully novels and more like this. 

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