The Boorish, Comic Life of an Exquisitely Awful Dentist | Modern Society of USA

The Boorish, Comic Life of an Exquisitely Awful Dentist

The Boorish, Comic Life of an Exquisitely Awful Dentist

By Nina Stibbe

Nina Stibbe’s “Reasons to Be Cheerful” is so dense with amusing detail that I thought about holding the book upside down to see if any extra funny bits might spill from the creases between the page. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for a novel that opens with a British dental surgeon named JP Wintergreen injecting himself with lignocaine and attempting to pull his own teeth.

Lizzie Vogel is a wise and cheerful guide to the absurdities and injustices in the dental surgery where she works. This is Stibbe’s third novel featuring scrappy, highly literate Lizzie, who, now 18, leaves her Midlands village after charming her way into an interview at JP’s practice in Leicester by tossing about phrases like “periodontal gum disease, acid saliva and unchecked dental caries.”

A cut-rate flat above the surgery is among the perks of her new job; it even gets late afternoon sun, making it “tantamount to living in Australia.” Although she’s been warned about the hazards of urban life, including prostitutes and “people trying to sell you things you didn’t need but would soon be addicted to — like feather boas, foreign cigarettes and ready-made sandwiches,” Lizzie is eager for permanent work, a challenge to find in late 1979 without connections or O levels. She embraces her new life, immersing herself in women’s magazines and aspiring to look like a “busy city woman,” which in addition to certain sartorial choices involves carrying lots of things: “bags and picture frames, and almost dropping them but laughing as if slightly shocked.”

This may sound like the setup for a “Sex and the City” romp, but Lizzie’s life winds up more closely resembling a bad loop of “The Office,” largely on account of the boorish, exquisitely awful dentist for whom she works.

JP is the classic buffoon of a boss, and in addition to answering phones, mixing amalgam, dusting cactuses and fudging answers to questions about fluoridation, Lizzie is asked to hold cigarettes to his lips so his fingers don’t smell of tobacco. He dresses “like a rich Spaniard,” has bad teeth, smells of vinegar and has the European way of arranging his trousers: “hoist high, with everything all down one leg.”

He is also an unabashed xenophobe. “Don’t tell me I have to adopt a Biafran,” he says when advised to improve his optics in the hope of becoming a Freemason. When a young woman named Pritiben Mistry shows up at the clinic with a “zombified appearance,” her mouth swollen and her eyelid drooping, JP refuses to treat her; it’s not just that she’s Indian, but he’s about to play golf.

This is a love story, too. Lizzie is possibly dating the enigmatic Andy Nicolello, who works for a dental laboratory. They spend a lot of time together; they even kiss, but it’s complicated and possibly ill advised. As her sister puts it: “You’re weird, he’s weird, together you’ll be a million times weirder.” Part of the problem involves Lizzie’s mother, who, in addition to her history as a “drunk, divorcée, nudist, amphetamine addict, nymphomaniac, shoplifter” and aspiring novelist, lacks boundaries and invites Andy to lodge in her house.

Events turn a shade darker in the second part, and the momentum flags a bit when the focus shifts from dentistry to driving lessons. But it hardly matters; the pleasure of this novel is in the quirky characters, the effervescent writing and the comedy in just about every line. Brits give good humor; to get me laughing, Stibbe merely has to drop phrases like “steaming cows,” “frozen ditches” or “spaghetti hoops on toast.” Maybe there’s something in the water over there that makes even the most mundane things funny. Could it be fluoride?

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