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.

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

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