Page Turner of the Week
Reviewed by Pam Lambert
Funny things start happening to Barbara Chessner after her husband dumps her. Overnight the Florida real-estate agent goes from frump to fox, the hottest saleswoman in her office. And a devilishly handsome client seems smitten. Naturally, Barbara wonders what the hell is going on.
As it turns out, the H-word may be right on target. For Barbara comes to believe that Satan himself has moved into Banyan Beach and that it’s up to her to drive him out. But in hedonistic South Florida, just singling him out from all the likely suspects looks fiendishly difficult.
In the hands of the sly Heller (The Club), it’s also smart-mouthed fun. You can just picture Ellen DeGeneres, for whom film rights have been optioned, tossing off lines like, “She was so simple, she probably thought a tropical depression was that melancholy feeling you get when you come home from a vacation in the Caribbean.”
April 15, 1996
Reviewed by Melanie Duncan
Barbara Chessner is overweight and prematurely gray, and her real-estate career has hit the skids. When her husband announces that he wants a divorce, Chessner hits the bottle to drown her sorrows and then stumbles outside into a thunderstorm to cry to the heavens, “I’ll do anything you ask. Anything.” Barbara awakens the next morning with a centerfold’s body and blond hair, and suddenly, she’s selling houses like hotcakes. So what if her breath reeks of brussels sprouts? She pops breath mints by the boxful and goes to meet a handsome tycoon. The tycoon, however, is a “darksider,” a person who made a deal with the devil in order to fulfill his dreams. This is a fiendishly funny novel, with riotous surprises and non-stop action. Disney/Touchstone has optioned it for a movie, and the intense national advertising campaign and sweepstakes contest will draw attention to a deserving work.
Copyright 1996, American Library Association. All rights reserved
January 1, 1996
A fourth novel from Heller (whose name may or may not have inspired her novel’s witty hook) puts a devilishly zany spin on the hard-to-enliven subject of midlife crisis. Things couldn’t get much worse for real-estate agent Barbara Chessner of 666 (yes, that’s 666) Seacrest Way, Banyan Beach, Florida. A bottle of wine has become her nightly norm; she can’t sell a house to save her life; and, at 38, she’s already gray- haired and dumpy. One night in the midst of a powerful thunderstorm her misery reaches its peak: Mitchell, her husband of ten years (whom she doesn’t even love), dumps her for buck-toothed but blond and busty local weatherperson Chrissy Hemplewhite. On top of everything else, Barbara’s suddenly all alone. So she does the only thing she can do: She strikes a midnight-hour deal with the devil. The catch is that she doesn’t know what she’s done: She thought she was praying to God when she called out to the stormy ocean, “I’ll do anything if you’ll help me.” When Barbara shows up at work the next morning, her stomach is newly flat, her hair is suddenly blond and smooth, her bustline is mysteriously enhanced, and she’s acquired a certain je-ne-sais-quoi that has her officemates deeply puzzled. Life picks up all around: She makes an immediate, significant sale to David Bettinger, a former short, fat, bald orthodontist and current stud who turns out to be another “darksider.” He gives Barbara the score when in the heat of passion she discovers that he has a tail. Meanwhile, Jeremy Cook, her brother Ben’s best friend, becomes rather more than an acquaintance, and her loyal dog Pete turns out to be much more than man-or woman’s-best friend. Campy, over the top, down-and-dirty, and a whole lot of fun.
Copyright ©1996, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Mellett, Brookline P.L., Mass.
Florida real estate agent Barbara Chessner is prematurely gray, overweight, and drinking too much. She hasn’t sold a house in ages when her husband announces that he is leaving her for a 24-year-old weathergirl. After a tipsy Barbara beseeches the heavens for help, she is thrilled to wake up the next morning, blonde and successful. Joy turns to horror, however, when Barbara discovers that the Devil is responsible for her transformation, and he expects quite a lot in return. Will Barbara be able to get her soul back from the Devil and thus thwart Satan’s plans for the moral destruction of south Florida? Readers of this very funny novel will have a great time finding out the answer. Barbara is a terrific character-clever, witty, and truly likable. This enjoyable tale is highly recommended for popular fiction collections.
Move over, Faust: Heller adds a witty, feminist slant to a strictly 20th-century story of the tug-of-war between good and evil. The devil in disguise makes his appearance to frumpy real estate agent Barbara Chessner in Banyan Beach, Fla., on the night on which Mitchell, her husband of 10 years, announces he is leaving to tie the knot with his partner in adultery. Having been derided for her flat chest, excess avoirdupois, disinterest in sex and failure to sell a house in over a year, Barbara ties one on, then staggers out into a tropical storm to tell whoever’s listening that she’s ready to make a deal. Done! She’s a bodacious babe with a mouth. Soon, an attractive client, David Bettinger, comes on to her. But once she learns there’s a price to pay (aside from brussels-sprouts breath), Barbara wants out of her bargain. Banyan Beach takes on a whole new light, or in this case, darkness. Waiting in the wings is pudgy Jeremy Cook, fisherman, singer, hater of pollution and secret admirer of the old Barbara. Cook cooks up a plan to best the bestial; Barbara buys into it. A bunch of wacky characters, including a persistently on-the-scene dog, share this frothy scenario, which lacks subtlety in plot and prose but succeeds on the strength of Heller’s fast-paced dialogue and humor. Film rights optioned to Disney/Touchstone.
As I was casting about for an idea for my third novel, Ann La Farge, my editor at Kensington, suggested I consider writing a comic tale with a touch of the supernatural. “Read Noel Coward’s ‘Blithe Spirit,’ ” she said, referring to the playwright’s famous drawing room comedy. “It may inspire you.”
She was right. I loved the play and it did inspire me, but instead of writing about a blithe spirit, I decided to make my otherworldly creature a sinister being.
Set in a fictional south Florida town, Infernal Affairs is the story of a real estate agent who makes an unwitting pact with the devil. Over the course of her struggle with good and evil, she finds the “good” in herself – and in the man with whom she never imagined she’d fall in love.
Published in hardcover in 1996 and in paperback the year after, Infernal Affairs was chosen as a People magazine “Page Turner of the Week.” It was released on audiotape by Durkin Hayes and read by Adrienne Barbeau (remember the daughter in the TV show “Maude?”). It was also translated into several languages and issued around the world (the German title translates as: Go To Hell, Darling). And it was optioned by Disney/Touchstone for a feature film.
This photograph came out of the photo shoot my husband did for the jacket of Infernal Affairs. I don’t love having my picture taken, but having your husband take it eliminates some of the nerves. So does a glass of wine, which, while not visible in this photo, came in mighty handy.
Read the First Chapter
On July 13, 1995, my life, once so uneventful, became the stuff of movies — horror movies.
Yes, on that Thursday night, a typically fetid summer night in South Florida, the devil showed up at my house and took control of my body. And you thought you had problems.
Why me? I asked myself. I was Miss Family Values, a nice Jewish girl who flossed her teeth and recycled her plastic containers and tipped the mailman every Christmas. I wasn’t exactly the type to join a cult or engage in Satanic rituals. Even the thought of piercing my ears made me queasy. And yet, it happened. The devil made an appearance at my–
Wait. I shouldn’t be throwing the devil at you this early in the story. You’ll think I’m just another flake who wants to get on the Maury Povich show. You’ll snicker and roll your eyes and say, “Yeah, sure.” But I’m not a flake. I’m a real estate agent with a bizarre-but-true tale to tell, a tale of dark forces and evil doings and–
Sorry. I did it again. Before I lose you altogether, let me tell the story just the way it happened. Let me back up and begin again with Mitchell, my husband, who on that same Thursday night in July announced that he was leaving me for another woman after ten years of marriage. . . .
“Go to hell,” I was dying to say when he told me. Instead, I glared at him and said nothing.
“What is this, Barbara? The silent treatment? Try to act like a grown-up, would you please?” said Mitchell, whose idea of being a grown-up was cheating on his wife.
I just shook my head and thought of how badly I wanted to tell him off. But in those days I was incapable of telling people off, a complete coward when it came to confrontations. I only got angry at people who couldn’t get angry back — characters in books or dead relatives. I was the type who was desperate to be liked and, therefore, never raised my voice or made snippy remarks or said anything the least bit provocative. In other words, for much of my life I sucked up to people and sucked in my true feelings.
I left Mitchell in the living room, escaped into the kitchen, and stayed there. Hiding like a scared kid. I poured myself a glass of red wine and drank it. Then I poured another glass. And another. When I was sufficiently anesthetized, I returned to the living room, carrying my glass and what was left of the bottle, and sat down.
“Come on, Barbara. Say something,” Mitchell demanded as he paced back and forth. “Yell at me. Hit me. Throw something at me. Don’t just sit there with that pained, pathetic look on your face.”
“What do you want me to say?” I asked, after taking a long sip of wine. “Apparently, you’ve made up your mind to leave me.”
Mitchell heaved a big, impatient sigh, as if he couldn’t believe he’d spent ten years with someone so hopelessly passive. And then he scowled and said, “You never gave a damn about me, did you?”
I remained silent for several seconds as I tried to think of the right answer. The truth was that I had stopped caring about Mitchell Chessner two or three years into the marriage when I realized, to my great disappointment, that he was dull. Profoundly dull. The sort of man you initially think is dynamic, charismatic, challenging, because he always volunteers his opinion and never says “I don’t know” and gestures wildly with his hands when he speaks, not to mention doesn’t sit still for more than ten seconds. But what Mitchell turned out to be was a bore. A bore with a fast metabolism. Of course, I never let on. I acted as if I found him enthralling instead of exhausting. I thought that by playing the part of the happy little wife, I’d be one, and then I would never have to get divorced, never have to start all over again with another man. The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t, I figured, not knowing anything about the devil then.
“Mitchell, I don’t think there’s any point in–”
“You never wanted to have sex,” he interrupted in an accusatory voice after I had finally managed two responses in a row. “Night after night I’d approach you, try to touch you. But no. You were always tired. Tired from what? Showing houses?”
I did not reply. How could I? I had resisted Mitchell’s sexual advances, not because I was so spent from my job as a real estate agent, but because he bored me as a lover the way he bored me as a human being. Given how hyperactive he was, you would think he would have been hot stuff in bed, a regular Energizer Bunny. But he was also extremely selfish and so he’d just lie there without moving a muscle, waiting for me to minister to him.
“You rejected me time after time,” he went on as I refilled my glass. Again. “And after I did my best to satisfy you.”
Satisfy me? You acted like you were half dead when we had sex, Mitchell, I thought. When I used to run my hand along the side of your neck during foreplay, I wasn’t trying to turn you on. I was trying to find a pulse.
“Why are you dredging up our past?” I asked. “You’ve just told me you’re in love with another woman. With Chrissy Hemplewhite.” I tried not to gag as I invoked the name of the weatherperson on the Six O’Clock News, the woman for whom I was being abandoned. I was no prize, but Chrissy Hemplewhite had the overbite of a squirrel, the hair of a blond troll doll, and the voice of a helium balloon.
“Very much in love,” he said proudly. “We’re looking forward to a wonderful future together.”
Some wonderful future. Mitchell was forty-six; Chrissy was twenty-four. In no time, he’d be having gum surgery and prostate problems and maybe even a hip replacement, and she’d be so put off by his decrepitude that she’d dump him the way he was dumping me. With any luck.
“Chrissy and I have the world by the tail,” Mitchell continued. “My business is going gangbusters and so is hers. Television meteorologists are in big demand right now.”
Meteorologist, my ass. Chrissy couldn’t even read her own dopey TV weather map. She once said it was raining in Milwaukee when the map right there in back of her showed that Milwaukee was basking in high pressure. She was so simple she probably thought a tropical depression was that melancholy feeling you get when you come home from a vacation in the Caribbean.
“In fact, one of the things that attracted me to Chrissy was her job,” said Mitchell. “I find the television industry fascinating.”
“What about my job?” I asked. “You used to find real estate fascinating.”
“What job?” Mitchell scoffed. “I haven’t noticed you selling any houses lately.”
More wine. I had to drink more wine. I took several sips and willed my eyes not to cross.
“I’ve been in a slump, that’s all,” I said. “Every real estate agent goes through slumps. Even top producers. It’s a cyclical business.”
My tongue had trouble maneuvering around the word “cyclical.” It came out “sillical.”
“A slump?” said Mitchell, tossing his head back derisively. “Your last closing was almost a year ago.”
I involuntarily made a fist as Mitchell began to rub it in about how dismal things had been for me at work; how, no matter what I did, I couldn’t sell anything. Not a house, not a condo, not a Goddamn doghouse. At first, I told myself it was the economy. But then why were all the other agents in the office selling property like crazy? Then, I told myself it was a run of bad luck. But then why wouldn’t it pass? Why was it that every time I had a customer on the hook, something would happen and the deal would fall through? I was jinxed, and I didn’t need Manic Mitchell to remind me. I was hard enough on myself, and my feelings of worthlessness had become so overwhelming that I had stopped going into the office every day. I had taken to drinking wine in the middle of the afternoon. I had stopped brushing my teeth. A very bad sign.
“I’d rather not discuss my career,” I said.
“You were the one who brought it up,” said Mitchell. He scratched his head, which, over the past several months, he had been dousing with Rogaine.
“I suppose the two of you intend to have children,” I said, moving on to yet another aspect of life at which I was a failure.
“As soon as possible. Chrissy loves kids.”
Sure, she loves kids, I thought. Intellectually, she has so much in common with them.
“Unlike some people I know, she actually likes the idea of being pregnant,” he added, the implication being that I didn’t. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be pregnant. It was that I couldn’t be pregnant, because of what the fertility specialist called “nonspecific sterility.” Mitchell had pooh-poohed the diagnosis. It was his opinion that I was somehow faking my sterility; that I was just being perverse; that I was malingering. Of course, whenever I suggested that we adopt kids, he dismissed the idea. Mitchell was so out of touch with his own ordinariness that he thought the only children worth having were those that sprang from his loins.
“Personally, I’m hoping for a boy,” he went on, as if responding to a question. I looked down at my hand, opened my fist, and saw that I had dug bloody holes in my palm with my nails. “It would be terrific if I had a son to take over the restaurants when I retire.”
The restaurants, I thought contemptuously. When Mitchell and I were first married, he was an accountant whose only experience with restaurants was eating in them. Then, several years ago, he confided that he had always dreamed of owning a restaurant. An Italian restaurant. An Italian restaurant that would become a magnet for actress-models and sports personalities and people who regarded garlic as the next oat bran. A few weeks after that, he went into business with a former client named Stan, who owned a chain of frozen yogurt shops. He and Stan took over the space that had been occupied by a failed Chinese restaurant, hired an architect, a contractor and a chef, and gave their eatery a name: Risotto!. The place was an instant success.
Of course, the reason Risotto! was so popular (trust me, it wasn’t the food) was that Banyan Beach, the town where we live, had recently been “discovered.” A once-sleepy fishing village on South Florida’s Treasure Coast, about an hour north of Palm Beach, Banyan Beach had become, seemingly overnight, a Happening Place. Suddenly, there was a Home Depot and a Blockbuster Video, a Ritz-Carlton and a Four Seasons, a Gap and a Loehmann’s, not to mention an actual Bloomingdale’s. Suddenly, there were golf communities and high-rise condominiums and glitzy “Boca-style” houses where funky old Florida crackers used to be. Suddenly, there was talk of a casino.
Just as suddenly, there were residents who were dying for a restaurant like Risotto! because, they said, it would make them feel less homesick for New York. Mitchell and Stan were so encouraged by this turn of events that they opened a second restaurant, a Manhattan-style steakhouse called Moo!.
It was at Moo!, Mitchell explained, where he met and fell in love with Chrissy, who went there to “wind down” every night after her demanding performance on the Six O’Clock News.
“Look, Barbara. Since you’re not going to say anything, I might as well leave now,” said Mitchell after checking the time on his Rolex. It was nearly seven o’clock and we’d been talking or, should I say, he had — for nearly two hours. Clearly, he was itching to go. Risotto! and Moo! were probably jammed and he couldn’t resist showing up and taking a head count. He once told me it gave him goose pimples to see people begging for a reservation at his restaurants. I said it was just his psoriasis acting up and that he should make an appointment with his dermatologist.
“If you want to go, go,” I said.
He came toward me, looked me up and down, and sighed with disgust.
“When are you going to snap out of it?” he asked.
“Snap out of what?” I said, knowing exactly what he meant.
“Out of your fog,” he said. He was pacing again. “You’re always so … so unemotional. Always holding things in. Always accepting whatever happens to you.” Another disgusted sigh. “You never ask for anything, reach for anything. You just sit there and take what life hands you. Don’t you have any … any needs?”
What I needed was some more wine. Much more wine. I drained my glass and was about to finish off the bottle when Mitchell snatched it out of my hand.
“Look at you,” he said. “You’re drunk. Is that how you’re dealing with your problems these days?”
He came toward me again, grabbed me by the shoulders, and marched me over to the mirror in the foyer.
“Take a good look, Barbara Chessner,” he demanded. “Take a damn good look at what you’ve become.”
I forced myself to look in the mirror. I was drunk, so drunk that when I saw my reflection I wasn’t quite sure who it was. I felt like I was gazing into a fun house mirror because the image that came back at me was distorted, unreal, frightening. I gasped.
I looked like a slob. A big, fat slob. My T-shirt was stained with red wine. My face was puffy, splotchy, not my own. My eyes, which used to be a crystal clear aquamarine, were tiny slits above my cheeks, milky and dull, like a couple of swimming pools that hadn’t been cleaned. And then there was the chin. The other chin. The one that had sprouted when I’d discovered that overeating was another way of swallowing my unhappiness. Once thin and fit, my body had thickened in the past year, widened, softened. I wasn’t obese by any means, just doughier, less shapely. Of course, despite the extra pounds, I remained as flat-chested as ever, the only difference being that now my flat-chestedness was even more obvious, in comparison with my newly protruding stomach. As for my hair, well, it always looked wild. Nothing new there. It was long and kinky and, even though I was only thirty-eight, almost completely gray. I remember when Mitchell’s mother, Helen, once asked him, “Does she do that on purpose? To achieve a certain ‘look’?” Mitchell had replied that kinky, prematurely gray hair ran in my family and that he thought it gave me “character.”
But the truth was, I didn’t have character. I was a character. A flabby mass of conflicts and contradictions. On one hand, I thought I was better than everyone else. On the other hand, I thought I was nothing. On one hand, I despised the redneck mentality of the people I’d grown up with in Banyan Beach. On the other hand, I resented the developers and the tourists and the very people who were trying to bring “progress” to the town, the very people who were giving the real estate business a boost. On one hand, I wanted to be the wife of a successful man like Mitchell. On the other hand, I wanted to be the wife of a man whose success wasn’t linked to the public’s appetite for arugula. I didn’t know where I belonged or with whom. I only knew that in the span of twelve months I had allowed myself to go from a size eight to a size twelve, with a depression to match. Who would want me now?
No one, that’s who.
The realization struck me with devastating clarity. Never mind that Mitchell was in love with another woman. I hated Mitchell. He was a jerk. Good riddance. Now I had to face the fact that I would be alone. Single. A divorcee. Just what the world was waiting for: another needy female with two chins and no tits.
I continued to stare at my reflection. I was repulsed by the image in front of me, yet I couldn’t look away. There was something eerily fascinating about my own deterioration. I had failed as a real estate agent and I had failed as a wife. I couldn’t sell a house and I couldn’t save my marriage and I couldn’t close the zipper on my jeans. What good was I? What kind of man would want Barbara Chessner in her present state?
“Good-bye,” said Mitchell, interrupting my latest orgy of self-loathing. “I’ll call you in a few days and we’ll discuss the logistics of this thing.”
This thing. Nice.
I wheeled around to face him. I couldn’t let him go without telling him off for the first time in all our years together. I wouldn’t wimp out. Not anymore.
Mustering every ounce of courage I had, I looked him in the eye and parted my lips to speak.
“Yes?” he said in anticipation.
I froze. My mind was full of angry words but nothing came out of my mouth.
“What is it?” he said, tapping his foot on the Mexican tile floor.
I tried again, but his disapproving glare paralyzed me.
Fed up, he turned away.
“Go to bed, Barbara,” he said as he opened the front door, then walked down the stone path to his car.
“Go to hell, Mitchell,” I said finally, when I was sure he was too far away to hear me.
A real estate agent in South Florida’s discreetly posh Banyan Beach, Barbara Chessner is down on her luck, up several dress sizes, drowning herself in Bloody Marys — and, worst of all, has just been dumped by her husband for a blonde TV weatherperson. Tired of living the life of a woman in a “before” ad, Barbara stumbles outside in the midst of a thunderstorm and beseeches heaven to help her — unaware that someone diabolical might be listening. Instantly, the storm vanishes and the sky fills with stars, one of which actually seems to be winking at her.Instead of a hangover the next morning, Barbara wakes up with golden hair (not her own premature gray), perfect pitch (she’s tone deaf), a strange black dog (registered to her), no double chin, a waistline … and definite cleavage! Talk about a good night’s sleep! So what could be wrong with going to bed looking like Barbara Chessner and waking up looking like Heather Locklear? As it turns out, plenty!
Suddenly, bizarre things begin to happen. Without any effort, Barbara sells the least appealing house in Banyan Beach to David Bettinger, the most appealing man she’s ever met. Without any reason, Jeremy Cook, a crude charter-boat captain who has detested her since high school, starts paying her compliments. And without any explanation on earth, everything she wishes for comes true. As David Bettinger becomes passionate, Jeremy becomes jealous, and Barbara becomes a major babe – everyone becomes suspicious. Her friends at the Home Sweet Home agency attribute the inexplicable to everything from hot flashes to dark forces. Not even Barbara knows what the devil is going on. But when she finds out, all hell is going to break loose…