April 12, 2006
A fascinating question often discussed, never resolved: why is that someone who makes it in one creative writing genre rarely succeeds in another? A little less than three months ago the much loved and greatly admired Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and essayist, Wendy Wasserstein died, having just completed her first novel, Elements of Style. Known primarily for satiric and sentiment-filled domestic dramas that explore with sardonic wit and affectionate humor the lives of women seeking love and identity, Wasserstein reportedly said recently that she'd seen enough chick lit to feel she could do it, raising expectations that she could do it as well, if not better, than most.
At its most engaging, chick lit, a.k.a. chic fic — novels written by women for women — infuses urban romance with feminist edge and cultural criticism. Attractive heroines, usually 20 or 30-somethings, long for professional and erotic fulfillment, but fall prey for a while to social pressures, false friendships, wrong men (husbands, lovers). Because they are intrinsically decent, however, they also suffer bouts of humorous self-doubt, as they struggle to find themselves. Those around them, wealthy, glamorous, socially prominent social climbers (there's always another rung on the ladder), serve as foils and provide much of chick lit's fun. Thin, chemically pealed to stretched perfection, narcissistic, obsessed with labels and usually married to super-powerful, exploitative, occasionally cruel or indifferent men, they inhabit a world where class and money define the elements of Style. Enter Wasserstein.
In Elements of Style, Wasserstein moves age up a decade, divides the female targets into old money, new money, and newer still, and dispatches a morality tale with no moral, despite the fact that events take place right after 9/11. The only admirable person in the book is the heroine who escapes from sidetrack entanglements sadder and wiser, though not necessarily better off, socially. Unmarried, lonely but independent and popular, Dr. Francesca ("Frankie") Weissman, named number–one in pediatrics by tony Manhattan magazine, has recently moved her practice to 102nd Street and Madison in order to accommodate the poor children of Harlem in addition to her Park and Fifth Avenue clientele. Despite a busy schedule, she makes time to visit her elderly, ailing father and is able to maintain an outer-circle relationship with some of the parents whose children she treats, kids already outfitted in designer clothes and sporting names like Sea Bernstein, Triumph Trump, Persimmon McCarthy, Yale Franklin, Real Chen.
Plot's not much in evidence here but that's par for the chick-lit course where scenes tend to settle on sex and shopping. The heart of chick lit is snappy dialogue, and Wasserstein proves true to her playwriting roots in getting off some good lines. Unfortunately, they are not sufficient to overcome some problems, including superfluous sections on Frankie and her father, and an odd, arbitrary resolution of the plot that involves a bombing at a Starbucks. True to chick-lit requirements, Elements of Style spends a lot of time on drinks, food, plastic surgeons, drugs, prep schools and society benefits, but only the most over-the-top types stand out from the interchangeable crowd. There's the foul-mouthed, magnetic Barry Santorini, a devouring "rat-f—" Hollywood producer (and a Republican!), known for remaking famous films, and the garrulous Judy Tremont ("Hey, if the world's in such a lousy mess, we might as well have a good time, right?"), who, like Barry, comes from the lower-middle class and would claw her way to be a society queen like C. Z. Guest or Bunny Mellon. As for the elegant mainline beauty Samantha Acton, it's hard to believe she goes down on Barry in a ladies room (is it obligatory in chick-lit that occurrences of fellatio outnumber those of intercourse?)
The title of the book, a nod to Strunk and White, seems forced. A gay, reinvented art critic muses that most of his social set wish they could codify style as easily as the rules of grammar, but in fact the climbers have already imposed upon themselves a rigid set of dos and don'ts. What's missing here is what Wasserstein well appreciated — the tragic sense of life that lies beyond "Sex and the City" — Fitzgerald's world where people like Daisy Buchanan don't dwell on killing someone by accident. Elements of Style was written under the author's own sentence of death, however and, as such, it may have served as welcome distraction, and for that it deserves respect.
Elements of Style, a novel by Wendy Wasserstein, Knopf, 307 pp., $23.95.