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C Elements Of Style
by Wendy Wasserstein
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From Publishers Weekly
Nixon (Sex and the City) crafts tones and speech patterns for Wasserstein's Upper East Side rich and famous that simultaneously satirize and humanize them. She manages to individualize characters who are, finally, too stereotypic to hold up. Their egotism grows annoying, their race and class attitudes predictable, their divorces and mate swaps dreary. It's difficult to know whether to fault the author or the abridger, though one has no sense of missing sections or passages. All that said, this is Wendy Wasserstein writing. From the double entendre of the title—literary craft vs. fashion and social climbing—we enjoy the irony, humor and moral outrage that move like undertow. Janet Maslin aptly described the book as "chick lit with a chill and a pedigree," and Nixon makes the most of the best of Wasserstein's writing. Wasserstein's plays are superb; her first (and, sadly, only) novel, while entertaining, falls short. With her wicked wit, emotional and sociological insight, and perfect ear for dialogue, she would surely have written many more marvelous plays and, no doubt, some wonderful novels. What a loss!
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From School Library Journal
Adult/High School–Young women, in particular, will revel in this tongue-in-cheek, thoroughly satirical depiction of post-9/11 New York society. Wasserstein's skill as a playwright is evident through the witty dialogue and farcical situations she used to create her deeply shallow, largely revolting characters. Inane values, a terrorist bombing, an accidental death, and a debilitating illness compose the dark elements of the novel, initially obscured by the author's light writing style. Our mutual vulnerability to these situations, she reminds readers, is beyond what money, power, and beauty can control. Society pediatrician Frankie Weissman, a compassionate and selfless individual, provides the perfect foil for the thoroughly unlikable primary characters. Frankie is Wasserstein's hero. Perhaps she is Wasserstein herself. This novel is about recognizing what is and who are worth loving.–Claudia C. Holland, Chantilly Regional Library, Fairfax County, VA
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From The New Yorker
The playwright Wendy Wasserstein, who died earlier this year, had the rare ability to be sardonic and compassionate at oncea talent put to the test in this novel about the goofy attempts of Manhattan ladies who lunch to adapt to post-9/11 life. The Axis of Evil notwithstanding, the characters' lives continue to consist mainly of elaborate dances of social one-upmanship. The heroine, through whose eyes the other characters are satirized, is a well-groomed (Spence, Princeton) woman who, unlike her friends, is unmarried and works for a livingas a Fifth Avenue pediatrician, treating both the children of her social peers and the disadvantaged of East Harlem. While the keynote is hilarity, Wasserstein also demonstrates, with sly grace, a vulnerability that cuts across class lines.
Copyright © 2006 The New Yorker
From The Washington Post's Book World/washingtonpost.com
A posthumous work by a beloved writer can only be welcomed with open and respectful arms. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein's first novel, Elements of Style, arrives just three months after her death at age 55. It is a satiric tale of good versus shallow, an Upper East Side sliver of the Big Apple, set in the wake of 9/11. Wasserstein's aftermath is not the fall of 2001 filled with funerals, bagpipe dirges on Fifth Avenue or "Portraits of Grief" in the New York Times. Hers is, pointedly, the post-9/11 of the rich and the fashionable, of Blue Bloods and those desperate to join them, cushioned by parties and gracious living, distracted as much by the challenges of private-school admissions as by national tragedy.
If we don't feel sympathy for the majority of Wasserstein's characters, their creator would undoubtedly would have said, "Good. You weren't supposed to." Raised and schooled on the Upper East Side, Wasserstein must have known these people and have been delighted to skewer them. The story delivers a point-of-view festival, with alternating characters providing third-person slice-of-life reports. Samantha Acton represents the Babe Paley of the new century, a New York thoroughbred who personifies social order and effortless good taste, self-described as "the only person who feels contented with the status quo." Judy Tremont is the "aspirational Upper East Sider," size four, born and raised humbly in Modesto, Calif., who married up, lunches conscientiously (hold the bacon, hold the dairy, dressing on the side).
A little fuzzy in the character-differentiation department is Adrienne Strong-Rodman, once a lawyer and Hollywood publicist, "hard and entitled," now married to a multibillionaire and in possession of a yoga hut on the roof of her twin townhouses. Deliciously crass and demi-monde-ish is the movie producer Barry Santorini, blunt, aggressive, uncouth, a send-up that could become a Hollywood guessing game. And there is more than a passing resemblance between the author and Francesca "Frankie" Weissman, M.D., the novel's uncommon woman of substance.
These people raise money, spend money and hire nannies who worked for princes. Unmarried and devoted to caring for her father, only Frankie Weissman remains above the plutocratic fray. She lives modestly, works diligently, admits to "ossifying loneliness." She has moved her pediatric Upper East Side office farther up Fifth Avenue to East Harlem, annoying and inconveniencing the backbone of her practice, those narcissistic socialite moms who don't like to wait among the germy underprivileged.
Through Frankie's selflessness and the toll it takes on her social life, Wasserstein delivers the message that charity begins at home, not at misguided fundraisers such as the one whose invitation noted, in an excess worthy of The Bonfire of the Vanities, "Dress Ghetto Fabulous." Wasserstein's contempt for her decadent neighbors is cloaked in what appears to be faithful reportage.
"Since 9/11 Judy had made a few obvious changes in her life," she writes. "First of all she never let her nannies take her children in taxis anymore. Any turbaned driver talking on a cell phone could be a terrorist. She kept a supply of iodine pills in her home plus gas masks for the entire family and their pets. Every day she carried a Fendi emergency kit in her purse neatly packed with Cipro. . . . And perhaps the biggest change was she always wore her good jewelry in the event she'd have to trade it for easy passage off Manhattan."
Nudged in the ribs, we understand that the constant invoking of designer goods and their price tags ("$1,950 rust crocodile Manolo Blahnik mules"; "three-hundred-dollar Bonpoint cashmere painter's overalls") required research by an author whose values do not come with iconic brand names.
Cheating and coupling jump the boundaries between old money and new. The new-money Barry "was in awe of girls like Samantha, who could trace their family fortunes back to the Van Rensselaers and the Carnegies. He also knew that as much as he was in awe of Samantha, society girls like her couldn't get enough of real Hollywood players like him. And besides, Barry had seen her husband. He was a runt from Princeton. A dermatologist. That's practically like being a skin care girl at Bliss spa or Georgette Klinger."
The trivial does give way to tragedy: Cancer strikes the novel's most boorish adulterer, and an accident (or murder?) on the slopes claims a principal. When a bomb goes off in a Starbucks, it is not a chapter from a post-9/11 history book, but the opening of act three, theater-like, a blast of light and sound offstage.
First and famously, Wasserstein was a playwright, whose words enjoyed the benefit of actors breathing life into them, signaling in voice, gesture and dress where attitude ends and irony begins. Thus a theater audience would know how to process the reply, "Do you think this is why Alex didn't get into Collegiate?" when a mother learns that her son has a brain tumor. Similarly, the reader can imagine the laugh Dianne Wiest or Madeline Kahn would have earned when referring to a morning pick-me-up as "four soybeans, for protein, and a chocolate chip, for fun." Readers who haven't seen Wasserstein's plays might wonder if Elements of Style was meant to celebrate or satirize high society and its trappings. But we have seen them, and we know. We trust that a dear playwright-friend of hers will take this work from page to stage, with luminous results.
Reviewed by Elinor Lipman
Copyright 2006, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
From Bookmarks Magazine
Critics felt traitorous calling Wendy Wasserstein's debut novel, published so soon after her death, a bit of a disappointment, but many agreed that what works so well on stage (the Pulitzer Prize? and Tony Award?winning play The Heidi Chronicles) does not translate well to prose. Some critics thought the novel possessed the verve and "charmingly neurotic" heroine (USA Today)a Wendy stand-inof her best-known work and praised Wasserstein's keen eye for social satire. Others called Elements of Style a so-so effort, filled with clichés, desperation, contemptuous characters, and exhausting laundry lists of shopping sprees. An important message about escapism and identity, however, lurks beneath the fluff.<BR>Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.
Wasserstein, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and essayist, gives fiction a go in a glitzy post-9/11 satire about Manhattan's narcissistic, moneyed, aggressively thin, and obsessively fashionable elite. Thanks to her dramatist's skills, her debut novel is brisk and peppered with amusing dialogue, but this territory is so heavily trod that it's difficult to get anything fresh to bloom. Wasserstein's cataloging of the latest in plastic surgery, cuisine, couture, nannies, private schools, and vacation spots is more dunning than cutting. Thankfully, her characters have some complexity. The ambitious, acquisitive, glossy, and gossipy women are perversely engaging, and the one with a brain, a pediatrician whose father is losing his battle with Alzheimer's, is even admirable. Wasserstein also concocts some intriguing endangered marriages. Potentially an update of Tom Wolfe's savaging of the rich and insular, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), Wasserstein's parody loses its zing, and the references to terrorism and the Iraq War are irritatingly superficial. However, readers looking for an arch and sexy high--society fantasy with edge will be perfectly satisfied with this tart tale of excess and retribution in the city. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
"Chick-lit with a chill and a pedigree. . . . A blithe, funny feat of escapism and a sobering reminder of the inescapable."
—The New York Times
“Wasserstein had the rare ability to be sardonic and compassionate at once." —The New Yorker
"A modern-day Jane Austen." —Chicago Sun-Times
“Wasserstein’s smart, funny sensibility bubbles up on almost every page.” —The Miami Herald
Elements of Style, the Pulitzer Prize—winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein’s first novel, is a scathing comedy about New York's high society facing the post—9/11 world.
Francesca Weissman, an Upper East Side pediatrician rated number one by Manhattan magazine, floats on the fringes of the upper strata of privilege and aspiration. Through her bemused eyes we meet the thoroughbred socialite Samantha Acton; relentless social climber Judy Tremont; Barry Santorini, an Oscar-winning moviemaker accustomed to having his way; his supermarket heiress wife, Clarice; and more, tossed together in a frothy stew of outrageous conspicuous consumption and adulterous affairs that play out on Page Six. But when Wasserstein’s madcap tour of the social lives and mores of twenty-first-century Manhattan veers into tragedy, we finally see the true cost of her characters’ choices, and the beating heart of this dazzling novel.
About the Author
Wendy Wasserstein is the author of the the plays Uncommon Women and Others, Isn’t It Romantic, The Sisters Rosensweig, An American Daughter, and The Heidi Chronicles, for which she received a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and of the books, Bachelor Girls and Shiksa Goddess. She was admired both for the warmth and the satirical cool of her writing; each of her plays and books captures an essence of the time, makes us laugh and leaves us wiser. Wendy Wasserstein was born in 1950 in Brooklyn and died at the age of 55. Her daughter, Lucy Jane, lives in New York.
From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Frankie completely forgot Samantha ever said she would call. But on a Thursday night while she was dressing for an exercise class the phone rang. Frankie decided to let the machine pick it up and concentrate instead on getting to the gym. If it was her office or something important, it would have been on her pager or the other line.
"Hi, this is Samantha Acton. Great to see you at the ballet." Frankie stared at her phone machine as if it were malfunctioning. "Will you come to dinner next Thursday? I mentioned to my husband, Charlie, that I saw you and he said he'd love for us to get together."
Frankie uncharacteristically lunged for the phone with her exercise tights still around her knees.
"Oh, hi, Samantha."
“Oh, you’re there. Screening, are you?”
"I win a lot of free trips to Orlando. And then there's my father's wife, Helen."
"Oh, I remember her. She wore leopard while all our mothers were in tweeds."
"I’m amazed you remember her!" Frankie was truly impressed.
"She was sexy, and you know, there wasn't a whole lot of that back then. So will you come?"
"Sure. I think so."
"Great. We live at East Sixty-sixth and Fifth, number 4. Say eight o’clock. Can’t wait. Charlie will be so pleased."
Frankie took her tights off her legs and sat down on the couch. She knew there was no way she would still be exercising tonight. Somewhere, she felt enough sense of accomplishment that after thirty years she was finally invited to the cool girls' table.
"I'm going upstairs to Acton." Frankie stopped at the white-gloved Fifth Avenue doorman.
"Elevator to your right."
As Frankie entered the formal lobby she wondered why Samantha didn't live somewhere hipper or less imposing. Then again, Christmas tree earrings in a room full of painters and filmmakers is a yawn. But in a room full of investment bankers and inherited wealth it's practically performance art.
The elevator door opened to a spare gallery of beige walls and Rothkos. A butler opened the door and a waiter appeared with a tray of caipirinhas.
"Can I take your coat?" the butler asked.
Frankie gave him her coat and, for some reason she didn't understand, her purse.
"Would you like to take your shoes off?"
Frankie actually didn't want to. They were suede boots which took her forever to get on. But she was too good a guest not to do what she was told. She sat down in the vestibule to remove them.
The multiple shades of beige continued into the living room. Even Frankie, who had virtually no sense of décor, couldn't miss the deliberately understated eggshell and dusted cocoa linen couches, the bleached floors, the faded Gustave Lefèvre and Eugene Atget photographs on the walls, and the contemporary Cindy Shermans and Clifford Rosses in the corner. She decided that a speck of dust would never have the chutzpah to rear its head here.
Samantha walked into the room arm in arm with an elegant older-looking man. As far as Frankie could make out, Samantha was wearing Prada, or maybe it was Gucci, sheer silver-spangled bell-bottom pants and a sleeveless silver lamé tank top. Her shoes were at least four-inch-high Manolo, or maybe Jimmy Choo, silver sandals, with lace ties around the ankle. For a moment, Frankie was flummoxed why Samantha and her friend were permitted to wear shoes and she wasn't. As she turned her head to acknowledge her host, Frankie noticed a small Giacometti sculpture inconspicuously placed on the bookshelf.
"Welcome. I'm so happy you're here." Samantha leaned down and kissed both of Frankie's cheeks. "Do you know my dear friend Jil Taillou?"
"No, I don't think so," Frankie replied.
"Jil worked for years at Sotheby's, and I was just showing him our renovations."
"It's a wonderful apartment. So calm. And I love the view," Frankie said, looking out at the Sixty-sixth Street transverse and the lights of Central Park South. "Did Pippa Rose design it?"
Jil put down his Grey Goose on the rocks. "Pippa Rose! You must be joking!" he said with a slight European accent. "She couldn't do anything as elegant as this. She's a chintzaholic!"
Samantha and Jil shared a laugh and sat down. Frankie followed them while silently sizing up her fellow guest. She hated herself for so easily categorizing people, but she was after all a scientist, and methodology had to start somewhere. As Jil Taillou reached for an olive, Frankie decided he was definitely gay, on the board of City Opera, well read, and actually from Brooklyn. Nobody's real name is Jil Taillou, especially if they worked at Sotheby's. Plus anyone with that kind of untraceable Middle European accent most likely studied French at Midwood High in Brooklyn.
At this point in her life, Frankie wished all her hosts would stop inviting an extra man to dinner for her. She frankly would prefer not having the illusion of an escort. Besides, these men were always decidedly unavailable but full of opinions, gossip, and connections. But every hostess she knew insisted on an even number of boy-girl seating. Frankie looked forward to a time when she'd be too old for anyone to bother.
"So there I was in Rome with Beatrice." Jil made the point of using the Italian pronunciation. "And we are supposed to fly to Beirut the next day for Amir's engagement party. And you know Mrs. Ouiss had organized the most fabulous party. But we can't go because the entire country is on strike."
"Oh, the Italians are always on strike." Samantha lit a cigarette.
"No, but here's the best part. We had the party in the Vatican instead."
"No!" Samantha seemed riveted.
"Really?" Frankie attempted to dive in.
"Beatrice is related somehow to the captain of the guards who gives private tours to Barbra Streisand and Sting in the pope's closet."
Samantha grinned. "I love this!"
"So they had the engagement party in the pope's closet. Dona nobis pacem, darling. If you think your Gucci pants are a great brocade, you haven’t seen the pontiff’s evening wear!"
Samantha was now convulsively laughing with her hand in Jil's lap as he continued. "Oh my God! Of course I had to try something on! His Holiness is a little shorter than I am but I look a lot nicer in a high collar. And this is the best! I told them anytime they want to have a Vatican sale, I'd do the auction."
"Whose auction?" a middle-aged man in black corduroys and a dark blue shirt asked as he walked into the room. "You guys are having entirely too much fun in here."
Frankie recognized him immediately. Charlie Acton, Omaha, Nebraska. He was a year behind her at Princeton. Nice Guy. A little straight. Army ROTC. He was someone Frankie said "hey" to while walking across campus. She didn't really know him except for a zoology class they had together, and she hadn't thought about him in at least twenty years. Charlie kissed Samantha and sat down beside her.
"Sorry I'm late, sweetheart, I got caught up with that interview."
"Well, we're having a wonderful time. Jil's telling us about Amir's engagement party at the Vatican."
"Wow! Sorry I missed it. Great to see you, Jil." He embraced Jil in the way that Frankie recently noticed straight men pointedly do.
"Francesca Weissman." He took her hand. "I haven't seen you since sophomore-year zoology. I was so happy when Samantha told me she had run into you."
"Were you two college buddies?" Jil asked. "I always wished we were. Just very nice acquaintances," Charlie answered, and helped himself to a caipirinha. "Deixa bebida!" He raised his glass and tossed off the toast in effortless Portuguese.
"What does that mean?" Frankie put down her glass.
Charlie laughed. "It gets you drunk."
While Jil repeated the pope's closet story for Charlie during dinner, Frankie remembered talking to Charlie once after class. It was the day he was rejected from the Ivy Club. Frankie had very deliberately never tried to belong to any eating clubs. Instead, she spent her time outside of class stage-managing for the Triangle Club, the illustrious collegiate theatrical group. But Charlie decidedly wanted the validation. Charlie was a bit awkward as an undergraduate. He listened to James Taylor and Simon & Garfunkel when everyone else had moved on. Frankie remembered that for weeks he carried around a copy of This Side of Paradise in his back pocket. Charlie was the kind of kid who wore a denim jacket because that’s what he grew up wearing in Omaha. Frankie also remembered he always called her Francesca. He said it was what F. Scott would have done.
When the dessert bowls came Jil exclaimed, "I love these bowls. Très moderne classique."
"It's Alvar Aalto." Charlie casually mentioned the name.
"The Finn?" Jil asked only to underscore that, of course, he knew the origins of modern design.
"Yes. We're collecting him now. After dinner I'll take you into the library to see the most terrific chair. In my mind Aalto makes Mies look like Ethan Allen." Charlie smiled wryly at his insider put-down.
"Ever since I burnt all of Charlie's old home furnishings all hell has broken loose." Samantha laughed heartily.
A waiter appeared with a dessert tray of sliced bananas, nuts, ice cream logs shaped like miniature bananas, hot fudge, and whipped cream in silver pitchers.
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