Myla Goldberg talks so fast and so intensely that after 10 minutes with her you feel you've known her forever. Over lunch in a Brooklyn diner you learn--before the food arrives--that she hates to repeat herself as a novelist, which explains why "Wickett's Remedy," in stores next week, is nothing like her debut, "Bee Season." That she grew up in Laurel, Md. --"15 miles from the shopping center where George Wallace got shot"--but couldn't wait to get to New York, where she hopes to live until she dies because "people who walk fast and talk fast don't stick out." That she's 33, has been married five years and has a year-old baby girl, writes five days a week because she likes to think of writing as her full-time job--which is why she's doing this interview at lunchtime, because "that way I can eat and talk and then get right back to work."
Whoa there. Can we back up to the part about the novels' being so different? Because fans of "Bee Season," a funny/sad book about a suburban Jewish girl who blooms as a spelling champion, are in for a big surprise when they open "Wickett's Remedy" and find it's about a working-class Irish-American woman in Boston during the 1918 flu epidemic. The "remedy" is a patent medicine invented by Henry Wickett, who dies of the flu early in the book. His partner turns the medicine into a successful soft drink, and Goldberg devotes part of the novel to made-up newsletters by imaginary late-20th-century fans of the imaginary cola who chatter about its charming history. But she also inserts actual news accounts of the epidemic, which claimed 20 million lives worldwide--and in the margins of the text, characters' ghosts constantly correct statements made by the living. In short, this is one weird book.
What binds this crazy quilt together is the indomitable young widow Lydia Wickett, a salesgirl who wills herself into becoming a nurse. Like Eliza Naumann in "Bee Season," the likable and courageous Lydia blossoms before our eyes. "If the rules had changed," Goldberg writes of her in the throes of the epidemic, "then she would learn them. If this was some new and dire season, then she would come to know its name." And if a novel is ultimately, as Goldberg says, "a portrait of you at the time you wrote it," then "Wickett's Remedy" shows us a writer eager to test the limits of her powers. Sometimes she exceeds those limits--the soft-drink subplot is more distraction than counterpoint to the epidemic narrative--but she's never boring. "I've always been a fan of writers who take risks," she says. "Narrative risks, any kind of risks." With this strange, often wonderful novel, Goldberg, like her heroine, has transformed herself into what she most admires.