Burned out by only a year of teaching science to middle school students, Moxie Brecker has moved to Boston and works in the less demanding career of lingerie sales. Her closest friend, Gerard, also works at the mall, selling men's cologne and waiting for Boston native James Spader to wander in and fall in love (even though Spader's married with children); her downstairs neighbour, Steve Tyler, keeps odd hours and receives fan gifts from those odd individuals who think a high profile musician would have his number in the phone book. Steve shares some of his deliveries with Moxie, but is very secretive about his own life and she suspects he's a drug dealer.
Moxie's life is uneventful, punctuated only by the g-string thief who steals huge quantities of underwear, and her regular therapy sessions. That is until a gorgeous man enters her world - unlike most men he manages to neither perv at the lingerie-clad mannequins nor ostentatiously avert his eyes, and though he clearly has someone for whom he's buying lingerie, each time she sees him Moxie's heart lifts a little. This is a highlight - every day Moxie feels tireder, less energetic, and even the simplest things exhaust her. Despite her therapists' assertions that these are symptoms of depression, Moxie harangues her HMO until she gets blood taken, but everything's normal.
Moxie's condition is the heart of The Pajama Game - it permeates every aspect of her life, affecting her performance and interactions. Olson, who was inspired to write this novel by her own experiences, beautifully captures the day to day life of someone living with a condition I won't reveal (for the sake of spoiler-avoidance) but diagnosed early on. Moxie's friendships, dead end and uninspiring job, and the romantic elements are all window dressing to this primary plot.
The cover, title (better known as a Doris Day '50's romantic comedy) and the blurb sell The Pajama Game as a romance; though there is certainly a roamntic sub-plot, and many stock romance elements (gay best friend, non-career retail job, meet cute, quirky secondary characters), this is not a romance. I'm not sure if this almost bait-and-switch is the cause of my lack of enthusiasm for Moxie, if it's the result of her own lacklustre affect, or because she seemed half-formed - there's a brief mention of friends from college who've all moved away, but otherwise she seems adrift in the world, anchored only by an obligatory gay best friend and an interest in marine life (Boston's aquarium plays a minor but pivotal role in the novel). Whatever the reason, I didn't engage with moxie nor, consequently, her story. The novel is also quite clearly dated by multiple references to the wonderful Boston Public, now sadly long off the air.
That said, there was much about The Pajama Game that I enjoyed, from the naked James Spader worship (the worship being naked, though naked Spader's not bad) and Bostonian setting (of particular interest as I'm going there later this year) to the interesting Tyler gifts and the descriptions of truly tacky underwear. Most of all I felt frustration with the state of the US health care system, and my opinion that all else is ignored once someone has a psych diagnosis was reinforced. I haven't read anything else by Olson thus far, but suspect I will in future, provided something falls in my path. - Alex