Monica Drake is a decent writer. She plays with the language the way clowns play with pratfalls and cream-filled pastries. There's no doubting that among the pages of "Clown Girl" is hiding an author with enough charm and wit to pen a book brimming with both humor and heart.
This, however, is not that book.
The story follows young Nita (you can call her Sniffles) who is struggling to make ends meet. Working the circuit in her home land of Baloneytown, Nita twists balloons into vague religious shapes, tries to find her lost rubber chicken and her drug-addicted dog, and deals with the absence of her beloved, a man named Rex Galore (he's away at Clown College, paid for by guess who?). The only thing is, Nita's got a heart problem (uh, ahem, an actual, physical heart problem), and so she's working fewer hours, earning less money, and her ex-boyfriend/landlord is threatening to kick her out of house and home. Add to the mix a cinnamon-scented copper with a stalkerish streak, and you've got more problems than a clown should have to deal with.
Drake shows us Nita's struggles through her daisy-shaped sunglasses, so those difficulties are all tinted with a painted smirk and lots of punny rejoinders. It's a silly-serious mood that works quite well at first, but which begins to grate more and more as the novel devolves into soap opera theatrics. By the final pages, what is meant to be funny is as eye-rolling as any knock-knock joke, and what is meant to be serious is just plain laughable.
Nita's/Sniffle's coworkers try to get her to do more high paying gigs (let's call it Clown Cuddling for Cash), to pander to the creepy-grins of the coulrophilic (read: Clown fettishists), but she (mostly) turns away from that path and chooses the road of commitment and dedication. This means she does a lot (A LOT) of pining for Rex, and she spends a good deal of time working on a mime-ish interpretation of Kafka's The Metamorphosis. These are lofty goals for a clown; good for her.
Unfortunately, for a woman with (sometimes shifting) standards and such ambitious intellectual pursuits, Nita is infuriatingly dumb. You can quite easily guess the conclusion of this book after reading twenty pages of it, as long as you're not too creative about it. And in the meantime, you must watch as Nita pushes back against obstacle after obstacle, most of which she has erected herself. Her heart, dog, chicken, relationship, and money problems all come across as the products of someone who is either too dumb to think for themselves, or simply can't be bothered to do anything but be sad and beleaguered. There's nothing quite as irritating as a central character who manufactures her own problems and then wonders for pages and pages, "What's to be done?"
To be fair, Ms. Drake is the real manufacturer here, and her literary intentions are clear: she wants you to sympathize with and care for Nita. Unfortunately, it is not a character's hardships that make them worthy of love or compassion, it is their hearts and souls. Nita may very well have one of those, but she's so busy mugging, jesting, and hiding under face paint (even to the last pages), that she is less a girl than she is a clown.
That would actually be a good premise for a short story, a small sidewalk show, a five-minute social treatise on what we are and what we make ourselves into, but that is not what Ms. Drake is going for here. At least, not solely. The love story. The heart problems. The prostitution, money, stealing, running, and constant fumbles and falls. Well-written, well-painted, and cleverly phrased it may be, this three-ring circus still has two rings too many.