Wasserstein left us a fun summer read

July 30, 2006|By SUSAN REIMER

VACATION ESSENTIALS MOST OFten include those things we don't wear or do in our real lives. Hawaiian shirts and fishing tackle. Flip-flops and craft projects. Mojitos and no mascara. Comfy cotton dresses long enough to brush the tops of your sunburned feet.

And books, of course.

Reading, like sleeping late or having your first cocktail at 4:30 in the afternoon, is a guilty pleasure that time-crunched real life does not often permit. I get my book fix at the beach, and it has to last the rest of the year.

Choosing those books is a lot like choosing who you'd like to vacation with. This is no time for regrets. At the same time, it is the beach, for heaven's sake. No point choosing something that will make the brain sweat, too.

I started collecting my beach books in the spring -- about the same time my daughter was choosing this year's bikinis -- and I left town with an armful. I looked as if I was heading for the local library on amnesty day.

And, ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner. Wendy Wasserstein's Elements of Style, a rollicking ride through post-9 / 11 New York's hideously rich upper crust, is the most guilty fun you can have at the beach this side of Boardwalk Fries.

It is Wasserstein's first novel, and, sadly, her last. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright died of lymphoma in January at just 55 years old, and this book was published posthumously. While her true legacy is in the theater, including The Heidi Chronicles and The Sisters Rosenweig, this novel is a delightful parting gift. It is beach lit, not Edith Wharton, but Wasserstein's name on the cover, as The New York Times wrote, gives the book a pedigree.

Each chapter is told from the perspective of another player in New York's money stratosphere. Each is as shallow as a street puddle after a summer rain, but fun to watch.

There is striving Judy, who married 1980s money in Albert. Blue-blood Samantha is married to Charlie, a dermatologist who keeps the buttocks fat of the rich and famous in his freezer. There is sainted but chic Clarice and her boorish movie producer husband, Barry. On the periphery are Adrienne, whose husband is about to go to jail for financial shenanigans; Pippa Rose, interior decorator du jour; and their favorite beard, Jil Taillou, whose name is as sexually ambiguous as he is.

The story is told largely from the perspective of the sympathetic Francesca "Frankie" Weissman, a doctor with a social conscience, a broken heart and a father slipping into dementia.

She finds herself traveling in these rarified circles after a glossy city mag names her "Best Pediatrician." In post-9 / 11 New York, socialite mothers suddenly care more about who is treating their children than they do about what nursery school they attend. Well, almost.

Weissman is no doubt a stand-in for the author, whose theatrical success elevated her to the observation deck overlooking New York's moneyed madness. This book is The Nanny Diaries told from the top down, and rich, white women look just as bad from this vantage point as they do to the underlings in that earlier novel by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus.

"Listen," says the mother of one of Frankie's patients, irritated that her child has to share the waiting room with pro bono riff-raff. "No one did more to raise money for social welfare in this town last year than I did. I work my ass off for diversity! But we've been waiting here for over twenty minutes and that's unacceptable.

"Judy sat back and munched on her favorite midmorning pick-me-up -- four soybeans, for protein, and a chocolate chip, for fun," Wasserstein writes.

Her gift was for writing dialogue, and the conversations and thoughts we overhear in Elements of Style are as crackling smart as any she ever staged, and the cattiness is so unsparing that you can almost see the manicured claws glinting in the sun of Aspen and Palm Beach, where the rich flee the post-terrorist climate of New York.

It is a world where the children have assistants who keep their schedules; where men are shocked that doctor's offices don't have VIP rooms; where retailers and hair colorists come to the house; where the perfect seating arrangement for a dinner party can give a woman orgasmic joy, and where seeing a rival's name in Manhattan magazine can require an anti-anxiety pill under the tongue.

Wasserstein writes like she is having a good time, as if she is gossiping with a girlfriend, and her one and only novel is a breeze to read. It has none of the gravitas of Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, with which it has been compared, although, like Wolfe, Wasserstein does not dole out happy endings. Everyone gets what -- or whom -- they deserve.

It is this season's perfect beach book, whether you make it to the ocean or not.

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

To hear an audio clip of this column and others, go to baltimoresun.com / reimer.

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