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The Elements of Style
By Wendy Wasserstein
The late Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein, who died in January at 55, cast her witty and empathetic eye on her own generation of women. Janie Blumberg in Isn't It Romantic and Heidi Holland in The Heidi Chronicles are just two heroines who find feminism's promise of having-it-all more easily said than done.
In Wasserstein's first and last novel, The Elements of Style, an entertaining if uneven satire of moneyed Manhattanites right after 9/11, her Dior-and-Manolo-clad socialites are less concerned with having-it-all than with showing-it-off.
As in her play "Old Money," Wasserstein focuses on the dance of attraction-and-repulsion between inherited wealth, with its breeding and culture, and earned wealth, with its energy and ambition. The plot pivots on an infidelity, which brings together Van Rensselaer heiress and American blueblood Samantha Acton with cobbler's son and Oscar winning producer Barry Santorini.
Bored with her aimless privilege and servile husband, Samantha becomes turned on by Mr.-Won't-Take-No-For-An-Answer Santorini, whose slovenly behavior and foul mouth are exceeded only by his megalomania: "This doctor better fix this, Barry thought to himself, or I am taking all of Sloan-Kettering down with me."
Yet he never misses a chance to acknowledge a classy woman, which he does by rubbing his leg up against Samantha at a dinner thrown in her honor by Judy Tremont, a rabid gossip and social climber whose lower-middle-class origins conveniently disappear when she marries a Boston Brahmin trust funder.
Samantha and Barry are soon doing it at the Lincoln Tunnel Motor Lodge because "there was nothing like slumming with a woman who can afford the Ritz." Once the cheating-cat-is-out-of-the-bag, Judy befriends Barry's wife, Clarice, offering a kind shoulder as bait for inside scoop, which she can later exchange for entr e into other Degas-and-Pissarro filled hallways.
Wasserstein is at her biting best depicting such fakery amid savage social advancement. Plus she knows every gilded corner of well-heeled New York, from Carlyle Hotel martinis, which, we learn, come in their own silver shakers and mini ice buckets, to haute cosmopolitan cuisine like foie gras on mint pita with pomegranate molasses.
A problem arises when she attempts to link 9/11 and a fictional suicide bombing at Starbucks to her characters' storyline. Both tragedies feel tacked on and never really meld with her chick-lit-comedy-of-manners - save to reinforce how insular and superficial these worshippers of money, power, names and fame really are: Judy's course of action is to build a refuge in Aspen and wear her good jewelry every day to barter in an emergency; Samantha's is to stick with Barry, thereby replenishing her old money with his new money and its ostentatious accoutrements: "Climbing the steps to Barry's Gulfstream jet, Samantha believed, given the precariousness of life, that Barry and men like him had devised the most bearable way to live."
The one character who does invoke former Wasserstein heroines Janie and Heidi is Francesca Weissman, known as Frankie. The novel's heart and soul, she shares much of Wasserstein's background, and essentially functions as her clever and compassionate alter-ego. The daughter of an immigrant Jewish father who made it big in textiles, Frankie attended an exclusive Upper East Side school with Samantha, but has never felt quite comfortable in posh environs.
Now a single and lonely 40-year-old pediatrician, she recently opened her Park Avenue practice to Harlem's unattended children, and is struggling with her own father's descent into dementia and death. A dinner invitation from Samantha, whom she hasn't seen in years, is uplifting and makes her feel she's finally arrived "at the cool girl's table."
Seated on Frankie's side is Samantha's husband, Charlie Acton, a society dermatologist whose specialty is injecting a woman's butt fat into her facial wrinkles. Once Samantha runs off with Barry, Frankie's free to fall for Charlie, a Gatsbyesque dreamer who prides himself on being a gentleman.
The resolution of these romantic triangles triggers Frankie's emotional growth, which is where another problem with the novel arises. Her life-changing realization in the final pages doesn't connect with what we've been told ails her: a dowdy appearance, naivet about men, and covetousness over those mega-watt designer accessories. Hovering above all, though, is her sense of dislocation, which is never satisfactorily mined or mapped out.
The realization, however, ties the dislocation to issues of Jewish identity and assimilation, recurrent themes in Wasserstein's plays and essays: "She was no longer part of that world. She no longer had a lingering belief, like Jil, that they knew how to live better than anyone else. Or that by being in their light she'd become imbued with their glow."
Jil refers to the cultivated art dealer Jil Taillou. Born Julius Taittenbaum, he escaped war-torn Hungary as a boy by keeping his Jewishness a secret. Arriving in America, he painstakingly studied Strunk & White's famous grammar book, The Elements of Style, to learn how to speak and write like an elegant American.
A daughter of Yiddish speaking Polish immigrants, Wasserstein had great ambitions for her own "Elements of Style," and in many ways achieves them. With nods to the novels of Plum Syke, Edith Wharton and Philip Roth, the dying author seems to have wanted to get everything in - everything she ever lived.