Integrity in short supply among Manhattan socialites who value image over essence

Review Novel


Elements Of Style

Wendy Wasserstein

Alfred A. Knopf / 307 pages / $23.95

Before her untimely death in January at age 55, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein completed work on a first-time project. The author of such Broadway plays as The Heidi Chronicles and The Sisters Rosensweig, Wasserstein also wrote two books of essays, a children's book and even librettos for ballet and opera. But she never published a novel.

Now, posthumously, comes Elements of Style, Wasserstein's examination of post-9/11 Manhattan high society. What she finds is a serious disconnect between style and substance.

Wasserstein uses her character's first names as chapter titles. And describing her dramatis personae is an excellent way to get a feel for the book.

For starters, there's Judy Tremont. Judy is a climber, a blue-collar California kid who married well and gave up a career as an editor at Mademoiselle so she could dedicate her life to setting the fashion instead of reporting it. So far, however, the best she's been able to do is to emulate - and spread gossip about - the style settlers.

The chief source of her emulation is Samantha Acton, the ne plus ultra of New York society. Samantha seems to have everything, including intelligence. But relying on pheromones instead of brains, she plunges into an affair with a boorish movie producer. This has devastating effects on two of the rare characters who truly have some character - Samantha's dermatologist husband, and the producer's devoted wife.

There's one other major figure possessed of a sterling character. Dr. Francesca Weissman, Frankie for short, actually has a social conscience. Her name is telling. Not only is she, indeed, frank in nature, she's also the wisest person in the book.

Frankie is a product of the right schools and has the right connections. Still, she might have passed under the radar of New York's socialites if a city magazine hadn't named her the best pediatrician on the Upper East Side. Now all of the upper crust matrons feel obligated to drag their sniffling offspring to her office, even though that means sharing a waiting room with the needy cases Frankie insists on treating.

Frankie would appear to be stand-in for Wasserstein, except that the pediatrician has no interest in commenting on or chronicling the manners and mores of her supposedly social betters. Frankie seems to find them amusing, exasperating and superficial, but for the most part, she's too good-hearted to condemn what she doesn't condone.

The book borrows its title from the style manual by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. The slim but invaluable grammar guide turns out to be a favorite of one of the novel's secondary characters, an art dealer who has concealed the facts of his life under so much style, even his good friends barely know him.

Looking at the art dealer's copy of Strunk and White, Frankie concludes that for him, "style created content."

The art dealer is one of the nice guys. The majority of the characters, however, are not only content-deprived, they're petty and self-centered. It's difficult to care about them, which, come to think of it, is not unlike Frankie's attitude. She has distanced herself, and if she's the character with whom you identify, you're apt to feel distanced as well.

In Wasserstein's 1977 break-out play, Uncommon Women and Others, a group of recent women's college alums harbor aspirations to have "amazing" futures. In the 1989 Pulitzer Prize-winning Heidi Chronicles, an art historian specializes in the study of often-overlooked women artists. In An American Daughter (1997) a female physician is nominated for the post of surgeon general.

All are compelling characters. But Elements of Style is more about what people think of each other than what they accomplish - or hope to accomplish. Frankie struggles to save young lives in her medical practice, while her patients' wealthy parents waste their privileged lives.

Because Wasserstein was such a gifted wit, she might have been expected to treat this material with humor. And there are certainly funny snippets. (Talking about her medical school cadaver, Frankie says, "[I] made up an entire life for her. I believed she was both a Torah scholar and a hula dancer.")

Most of all, however, Wasserstein's take is Chekhovian - not surprising since she was a great admirer of the Russian playwright. Chekhov often depicted upper class inertia, and that's essentially what Wasserstein has done here. But her approach is deceptively straightforward, if satire is what she intended.

After Wasserstein's death, I listened to a tape from a 1994 interview I did when she came to Baltimore to speak at a fundraiser. The two things that stood out most strongly were her laughter and her warmth. Frankie Weissman embodies both of those characteristics, and in the end, she's the loneliest character in Elements of Style.

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