Books April 2006

New Fiction

Finds and Flops

Satire is a risky enterprise—a writer who falters can abruptly become a target, worthy of spoofing. Wendy Wasserstein's zippy but ultimately disappointing lampoon of Manhattan's trendsetters opens immediately after 9/11, when her insulated characters, mainly women in their forties who've acquired Pilates-perfect bodies and other "yumbo" accoutrements, confront their burgeoning "security anxiety." Judy Tremont, Wasserstein's comic centerpiece, manages the threat of terrorism with trademark efficiency: she pops Ativan, sports a Fendi emergency kit full of Cipro, and wears lavish jewelry in case she must "trade it for easy passage off Manhattan." But Judy's deepest desire—entrée to society's A-list—eludes her until she finally befriends the preternaturally stylish Samantha Acton.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Wasserstein, who died in January at age fifty-five, has written a play in novel's clothing, concocted from biting dialogue, endless costume changes, sight gags that probably would work better on stage, and the killing off of unwanted characters with Shakespearean dispatch. At the heart of Wasserstein's social critique lies the same intriguing paradox Henry James explored: those with old money, sophistication, and polish are attracted to the raw energy (the vulgarity, even) of society's nakedly aspiring climbers. Thus Samantha appreciates Judy's persistence, while Judy's ineffectual husband, Albert, delights in his daughter's acquisitiveness: "Charlotte wanted Prada and Juicy Couture with a passion that he had for very little, except maybe fine port."

Wasserstein stumbles when Frankie Weissman, an appealing pediatrician (and a double, one suspects, for the author), confesses a "sense of accomplishment that after thirty years she was finally invited to the cool girl's table." Any satirist who evokes the adolescent hierarchy with such dewy fondness veers dangerously close to self-parody. Wasserstein should best be remembered for her energetic early comedies, such as Uncommon Women and Others.

Presented by

Elizabeth Judd is a writer in Washington, D.C.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Confessions of Moms Around the World

A global look at the hardest and best job ever

Video

A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book

Video

The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"

Video

This Japanese Inn Has Been Open for 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In