Favorite

Sweet but Stale 

Stacey A. Toben could have used a few more writing lessons before publishing her first book

Stacey A. Toben is a happily married nurse practitioner, the mother of four, living with a menagerie of animals (including a llama or two) somewhere in the urban labyrinth 100 miles to the north of Tucson.

A while back, inspired by her grandmother, Toben began writing down the events of her life in a series of memoirs for her children. However, the more she wrote, the more she became convinced that her adventures should be shared with a wider audience.

"I wanted others to benefit," she writes, "from my experiences and learn to love the life they were given ... good, bad and all."

The result is her first book, Not a Victim of Circumstance: Responding Positively to What Life Hands You, a short, meandering look back over the life of a likable young woman, well-intentioned and irrepressibly cheerful, whose writing skills have yet to mature.

The book contains more than 30 vignettes that glimmer, at times, with interesting material. The problem, though, is that none of them evolve into well-elaborated, satisfying stories. Consequently, this book has the feel of a stack of hastily thrown-together assignments for a weekend journaling class.

Despite the sparse material, we get a fairly clear picture of Toben. She's a determined and sensitive woman, raised by her mother and grandparents. Her father was a bit of a rogue who rambled on down the road when she was a small child. Her mother worked hard and tried to instill a sense of independence in her daughters, and couldn't seem to stop washing her hands. Her grandmother was a strong-willed woman, overflowing with quirks (she once gave Toben a used toothbrush for Christmas), and her sister was so mean, she could have given the Marquis de Sade a run for his money.

Growing up, Toben was endlessly lovesick, often lonely, at times suicidal. She couldn't seem to decide what to do with her life, flip-flopping between dancing, tennis, acting, modeling and working with animals. Finally, she met the man of her dreams, a prosperous veterinarian, who fell for her despite her having spilled spaghetti all over the interior of his car on their first date.

All in all, Toben appears to have led a spirited but relatively pedestrian life. In the hands of a more seasoned writer, her experiences likely could be shaped into an interest-sustaining, perhaps hilarious, even inspiring coming-of-age story. As it is, Toben's passages, seldom funny and too lacking in depth to be truly inspiring, are often as somnolent as many teenagers' dairies.

One critical flaw is that Toben lacks a sense of focus. Rather than limiting her work to a few especially meaningful and well-developed topics--her relationship with her family, the joys and heartaches of young love, the loneliness and despair she felt growing up, her struggle with anorexia, the death of her grandparents' first child--Toben throws more disparate, and essentially vacuous, information our way than we'd care to know.

We hear about the death and burial of her pet caterpillar when she was 9 (with work, this could become a sweet children's story), and that she's hopelessly clumsy (she fell over her dog, breaking the unlucky canine's leg). We also learn that she once worked at Sizzler and couldn't stand the uniforms; that because she has four children, she's often mistaken for a Mormon or Catholic; that she was a cheerleader and loved the initiation rituals (especially the hair gel of toothpaste and maple syrup); that she didn't shave her legs until ninth grade; that she color-codes her fruits and vegetables (to make sure that her family receives a balanced diet); and that she's addicted to mocha frappuccinos.

Not surprisingly, she laments, "I need to figure out how to get people to listen to me."

Toben certainly has an upbeat attitude, and the book's persistent motif is that something positive can be found in any situation if you're able to glimpse the big picture.

She tells us that she discovered her calling as a nurse because of a near-fatal car accident, that being fired from a job led to meeting a woman who had a deep spiritual impact on her, and that she met her husband because she walked out on the boss from hell. Even her klutziness, she says, has its benefits, having enabled her to reconnect with a long-lost friend in the emergency room after she broke her arm.

Toben is a committed Christian, and her faith is a consistent presence throughout the book, including chapters on following God's will and the efficacy of prayer. Indeed, Toben might consider some serious prayer (or the guidance of a more astute editor) before embarking on her next project, asking to know the difference between rich, well-crafted prose and promising, but half-baked banalities.

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