McPhee, Jenny 1962(?)–
McPhee, Jenny 1962(?)–
Born c. 1962; daughter of John (an author) and Pryde (a photographer) McPhee; married; children: two sons. Education: Williams College, Williamstown, MA.
Agent—Kimberly Witherspoon, InkWell Management, 521 Fifth Avenue, 26th Floor, New York, NY 10175.
Writer and translator.
(Translator) Paolo Maurensig, Canone Inverso, Henry Holt (New York, NY), 1998.
(Translator with Richard Fremantle) Franco Quadri, Robert Wilson, Rizzoli (New York, NY), 1998.
(With Laura McPhee and Martha McPhee) Girls: Ordinary Girls and Their Extraordinary Pursuits, Random House (New York, NY), 2000.
The Center of Things (novel), Doubleday Publishing (New York, NY), 2001.
No Ordinary Matter (novel), Free Press (New York, NY), 2004.
Jenny McPhee's father is the esteemed essayist John McPhee, and her sister Martha McPhee is an award-winning novelist. McPhee entered the world of publishing gradually, beginning as a translator. She later collaborated on a nonfiction book about the lives of American girls with Martha as well as with their sister Laura, a successful and prizewinning photographer. Then she struck out on her own, publishing her debut novel, The Center of Things in 2001.
The McPhee sisters decided to embark on a study of the great things American girls were accomplishing after hearing so much bad news about girls' lives. Despite the media focus on the number of problems girls were facing, the sisters found that girls were also succeeding at everything from football, science, and investments, to chess, ballet, and music. McPhee told Jennifer Wolcott the Christian Science Monitor, "It wasn't as if we had to go searching…. Girls like this are everywhere. For every one we found, we could have found 50,000 more like her. We're just not used to celebrating our girls in this country."
Attempting to present a geographically diverse portrait, the McPhee sisters traveled the country seeking girls whose accomplishments stood out not because they were so unusual, but because they reflected the achievements of girls in general. In Girls: Ordinary Girls and Their Extraordinary Pursuits, they tell the stories of a teenage novelist, a seven-year-old competitive chess champion, a professional child harpist, and a New Yorker who works as a camp counselor in Bosnia. McPhee told a contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, "I think all the time about these girls and what they accomplish…. Some of them have terrible troubles, but they don't let that stop them from putting all their energies into their interests."
Reviewers generally welcomed this contribution to literature about girls. Mary Carroll in Booklist, called the book "a celebration of young American women." Jean Hanff KoreLizt, reviewing Girls for Harper's Bazaar, described the book as "stunning," and "a nuanced, resonant snapshot of American girlhood at the turn of the millennium." Sandra Isaacson in Library Journal suggested that the girls chosen for the book are not so ordinary, but rather very talented and driven; and concluded: "This work is interesting but falls short of being dynamic because of its brevity." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly, however, maintained that "these endearing portraits of young athletes, artists and adventurers help expand the limits of the possible."
The release of Girls was shortly followed by the publication of McPhee's first novel, The Center of Things. The Center of Things tells the story of a single, plain, not-so-young tabloid reporter who becomes obsessed with Nora Mars, a former movie diva about whom she is assigned to write an obituary. The reporter, Marie Brown, is also obsessed with physics, an interest she indulges with "freelance intellectual" Marco Trentadue, whom she meets at the library. Meanwhile, her research into the life of Mars leads her to consider a tryst with the actress's third husband, Rex Mars. Among all these other longings, Marie reveals a desire to give up tabloid journalism and become a science writer.
A reviewer for Publishers Weekly said of The Center of Things: "It takes guts for a debut novelist to mix such disparate subjects as abstruse science, philosophy, movies, and the single life in New York City, but McPhee takes the risk with brio and acquits herself with élan." Dennis Overbye, reviewing the book for the New York Times Book Review, also found that the unusual combination worked: "McPhee … knows how to keep things light. All her cosmic vamping adds a teasing hint of intellectual relief to a tale of tangled lives that for all its complexity might seem a shade cartoonish told straight out." Judith Kicinski, in Library Journal, called McPhee "a talented, graceful, and often sardonic writer," saying that with The Center of Things, "John McPhee should be proud of his daughter." The Publishers Weekly critic similarly noted the family connection, concluding: "While the McPhee name may be the initial drawing card here, the novel's off beat charm will distinguish Jenny McPhee as an accomplished writer with her own distinctive style."
In her second novel, 2004's No Ordinary Matter, McPhee offers a story of two sisters, Lillian and Veronica Moore, who go searching for details about their father's death twenty-five years earlier. Their father died in a car crash, but the sisters don't know where he was going when he died, or where he is buried. The sisters' mother, now living in New Zealand, refuses to answer their questions about their father, so they hire a private detective. Complicating matters are Lillian's pregnancy, Veronica's romance with the same unemployed actor who is the father of Lillian's unborn child, and questions about whether their father was really their father—and whether they are really sisters. While noting that the novel is a melodramatic farce, critics responded enthusiastically to the book. A Kirkus Reviews contributor, for instance, called the novel "absurdly improbable" but also remarked that it is "a witty spoof, nicely put together and hard to put down." Similarly, Booklist reviewer Kaite Mediatore noted that, "on the surface, this novel's premise shouldn't work" but then added that in the end, the book "reads like a Shakespearean comedy." A Publishers Weekly reviewer termed the novel a "guilty pleasure," while Library Journal contributor Beth E. Anderson commented that McPhee "successfully pulls off this souped-up, big-hearted soap."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Book, July, 2001, Beth Kephart, review of The Center of Things, p. 66.
Booklist, October 15, 1998, Bonnie Johnston, review of Canone Inverso, p. 400; November 1, 1998, Jack Helbig, review of Robert Wilson, p. 461; October 1, 2000, Mary Carroll, review of Girls: Ordinary Girls and Their Extraordinary Pursuits, p. 295; June 1, 2001, Kristine Huntley, review of The Center of Things, p. 1847; June 1, 2004, Kaite Mediatore, review of No Ordinary Matter, p. 1702.
Commonweal, January 13, 1995, Peter Steinfels, review of Crossing the Threshold of Hope, pp. 21-22.
Entertainment Weekly, August 17, 2001, Gillian Flynn, review of The Center of Things, p. 66; June 11, 2004, Jennifer Reese, "A Family ‘Matter’: Though Her Sister Is a Novelist and Dad Is John McPhee, She's Making a Name for Herself," p. 130.
Harper's Bazaar, October, 2000, Jean Hanff KoreLitz, "Family Portrait," p. 234.
Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 2004, review of No Ordinary Matter, p. 354.
Library Journal, October 1, 2000, Sandra Isaacson, review of Girls, p. 130; July, 2001, Judith Kicinski, review of The Center of Things, p. 125; May 15, 2004, Beth E. Anderson, review of No Ordinary Matter, p. 115.
New York Times Book Review, July 22, 2001, Dennis Overbye, "Quantum Fizz," p. 7.
People Weekly, August 27, 2001, synopsis of The Center of Things, p. 43.
Publishers Weekly, September 25, 2000, "Women and Girls of Stature," p. 107; June 11, 2001, review of The Center of Things, p. 55; May 17, 2004, review of No Ordinary Matter, p. 33.
Times Literary Supplement, November 11, 1994, Peter Hebblethwaite, "Professor in Slippers," p. 32.
Washington Post, July 15, 2001, "Getting Physical," p. T4.
Calendar Live,http://www.calendarlive.com/ (September 2, 2001), Mark Rozzo, review of The Center of Things.
Christian Science Monitor Online,http://www.csmonitor.com/ (January 24, 2001), Jennifer Wolcott, "American Girls: ‘We're Doing Just Great, Thanks.’"
Media Bistro,http://www.mediabistro.com/ (October 7, 2001), Diana Michele Yap, review of The Center of Things.
Rain Taxi,http://www.raintaxi.com/ (November 20, 2001), Rumaan Alam, review of The Center of Things.
Salon.comhttp://www.salon.com/ (October 7, 2001).
Zoetrope All Story,http://www.all-story.com/ (October 7, 2001).