The Cha-Cha Babes of Pelican Way
By Frances Metzman
Wild River Books. 499 pp. $19.95
Reviewed by Beth Kephart
I've been spending a lot of time at a retirement village lately. My father lives there. I love him. And so I go and meander about at his side — greeting the ladies (mostly the ladies) who sit on the shaded benches or down in the garden or by the window in the cafe. There are scooters, walkers, canes, and ambling feet. Stories passing by.
I have not, to my knowledge, encountered cha-cha babes throughout my village jaunts, though you might talk to me, if you wish, about the line dancers. Philadelphia writer Frances Metzman, however, has encountered such figures — or at least she has in her imagination. She's put the vision to fortitudinous use in her new fast-paced and psychedelically covered novel The Cha-Cha Babes of Pelican Way. Sex. Murder. Serial murder. Embezzlement. More murder. Betrayal. More sex. Oh, and, yes, not just cha-cha but the rules of cha-cha, which include "don't be afraid of resistance. It opens new horizons" and "judgments immobilize the mind. They limit freedom of choice."
It all goes down at the Florida retirement community where Celia Ewing, a 65-year-old widow who can pull off a cleavage-bearing outfit and thong to better effect than her daughter, has found herself caught up in a mystery that may cost her and her daughter their lives.
The curtain goes up on a frantic call in the middle of the night. Celia's new friend Marcy is in a predicament. Marcy has been flattened, to be specific, by the hulking weight of her senior citizen boyfriend, who has died during their secret tryst. Another friend has been called in to consult. They do the only thing they can think to do, the only thing right-thinking people in such a predicament would, of course, do — swab the naked body, wrap it in blankets, and wheelchair it back to its bed.
Then pretend nothing's happened.
You know — as well as they can.
The imbroglio involving Marcy's secret lover is not the only weird stuff going on at Boca Pelicano Palms. The death rate among the "oldsters," for example, is suspiciously high. So is the death rate among people associated with Global HMO's Well Services, the caregiving organization with close ties to Pelicano. And what's up with Deb, the third cha-cha babe, who's losing parts of her mind at a precipitous rate? Finally, is Celia's new lover (who also happens to be an old boyfriend) part of the good gang or the bad gang, to be trusted or to be denied? Finally, finally, will Celia's mostly estranged daughter, who has nevertheless moved in with Celia (and gotten a job, coincidentally, at Global HMO), learn to love Celia for who Celia has at long last become?
The plot revs, tilts, bangs. There is gunfire. There is a car chase. There's some fancy computer work and Plan A and Plan B and hiding in small spaces and sneaking wires onto jackets. There is also the liberation of the cha-cha — both the dancing lessons the ladies take and the rules they try to live by. Metzman writes of Celia:
Those times infused her with pleasure, injected her with new life. Swaying to a cha-cha rhythm, in sync with another person, she exploded with internal combustion, feeling a high no medication could imitate. Her soul soared until her spirit hovered just above her body, watching the slow realignment of her moods from bleak to upbeat.
Metzman supposes with abandon, goes in for a few red herrings, and doesn't shy away from financial forensics. And though Celia professes herself to be an Alice Munro fan — "she loved Munro's writing, the way she took a small incident or an ordinary person and revealed, layer by layer, the depths of intelligence, behavior, and feelings in people" — Metzman seems to take her greatest pleasure from the shenanigans of her characters. The book is nearly 500 pages long, but you'll finish it in a day. You'll want to know if Celia wins the day — and if she'll keep rocking that thong.
Beth Kephart (bethkepthartbooks.com) is a Philadelphia-area writer whose latest book is "Wild Blues."