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Vandever's funny, taut novel takes on marriage, middle age, dreams

COURTESY IMAGE - It's 'American Tango,' by Jennifer Vandever.How to keep moving forward when your life has stalled out — that’s part of the push and pull that writer Jennifer Vandever wrestles with in her taut and funny new novel, “American Tango” (Melongrano Press, $14).

Rosalind Plumley is a 37-year-old who has an uneasy relationship with her art, her job at an upscale children’s boutique, and her husband, Cal, who thinks a dog they rescued is his brother reincarnated. Rosalind has a lot weighing on her, including a recent miscarriage, but this is no pity party. She’s looking to make a change, to flip the script and get unstuck. She decides to take tango lessons.

Rosalind’s biggest foil is her mother, Helen, a charismatic academic and feminist zealot. When Rosalind’s husband declines to take tango classes, Helen steamrolls in, becoming Rosalind’s dance partner and the most disruptive pupil in class.

Vandever paints a colorful cast of characters in her novel, set in Portland. A sister, Polly, is a budding eco-terrorist who works in a wine bar. Another sister traded French street theater for Big Pharma and a house in the suburbs. Rosalind seeks a path somewhere in the middle, one that doesn’t degrade the dreams she had for herself as a college student.

COURTESY PHOTO - It's Jennifer Vandever.An L.A.-based novelist and screenwriter, Jennifer Vandever was raised in Portland and is an adjunct professor at Emerson College, where she teaches screenwriting classes.

“American Tango,” her second novel, published on June 15. The book is sold at Portland’s Broadway Books near the Northeast Portland home where she grew up. It’s also sold online through Amazon, of course. (Full disclosure: We’re friends dating back to high school days.)

It’s a story that had to be set in Portland, she says.

“It came out of all the trips back and forth between Portland and L.A. and nostalgia for all of these places from a different era,” Vandever says. “Sites where earlier dreams for myself were hatched while dealing with the muck of real life.”

Vandever’s first book, a romantic comedy called “The Bronte Project,” received strong reviews, with Buffalo News writing that “it’s never short of lovely to find a new writer like Vandever: funny, witty, smart, thoughtful ... You’ll want to hear more from Vandever and soon.”

Agents and publishers echoed that they loved this follow-up to “The Bronte Project,” but didn’t know how to sell it. So Vandever, good thing for us, decided to keep revising and to publish it herself.

“Self-publishing these days is a very different model, but it’s one that I like,” Vandever says, comparing it to the DIY ethos of the indie film world. “It’s not about the three-month launch. It’s all about ‘discoverability’ and Facebook and Twitter. I like the creative control it gives me. As a screenwriter I spend so much time waiting for people to say yes to me, but this has been so empowering.”

Like any good screenwriter, Vandever excels at snappy dialogue. Her quick wit and lean style make “American Tango” a two-day read that pivots lightly through topics — marriage, miscarriage, middle age — that could sink less skilled writers. Depression, in Vandever’s hands, is not so depressing after all.

“It’s about a woman on a threshold,” Vandever explains. “In a stuck place in life. Her art. Her job. And all that changes when she decides to take tango classes and they actually do start to change her. A lot of that is due to grief that’s been unexpressed.”

Tango, some say, is a sad thought danced.

The dance classes become a stand-in for Rosalind’s escapist urge to chuck it all and move to Argentina, something she longed to do after reading a New York Times article about tango in Buenos Aires. How perceptive of Vandever to underline the peculiar torture — the gorgeous photography, the breezy “if you go” tips — the travel section exacts on many of us.

“The book is really about that moment in our adult lives when you start letting go of that script from 10 years ago,” Vandever says. “It’s about reframing that.”

Vandever handles this moment — when you realize you aren’t going to Buenos Aires, but it’s OK — with swift and entertaining prose, and a plot that serves up more than a few surprises.

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