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Elements of Style: A Novelby Wendy Wasserstein
Synopses & Reviews
From the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and author of the essay collection Shiksa Goddess ("Utterly delicious" — Judith Thurman), a dazzling debut novel, a comedy about New York's urban gentry living in a post-9/11 world — the arbiters of fashion and the doyennes of charity balls; about the rich and the nouveau rich(er), the glamorous and the desperate to be.
We meet Francesca Weissman, the Upper East Side pediatrician rated number one by Manhattan magazine, who takes us into the upper strata of privilege and aspiration (she's originally from Queens with a father in hosiery; life on the fringes of glittering New York is fine with her)...Samantha Acton, thoroughbred descendant of the Van Rensselaers and the Carnegies, who defines the social order in the great tradition of Mrs. Astor and Babe Paley...Judy Tremont from Modesto, California, daughter of a cop — her life's work, her obsession, is New York society and its richest families...Barry Santorini, Republican, moviemaker, winner of twelve Oscars, and his wife, the Italian supermarket heiress and former media rep for Giorgio Armani...and many more.
As Elements of Style opens out, we see a madcap mosaic of the social lives and mores of twenty-first century Manhattan — of romance, work, family, and friendship. Satiric, fierce, touching — and deliciously Wasserstein.
"In the classic primer that Pulitzer Prize — winning playwright Wasserstein (The Heidi Chronicles) names her dishy first novel after, Strunk & White note, 'Style not only reveals the spirit of the man but reveals his identity.' Wasserstein tries to apply that aphorism to Manhattan's wealthy elite shortly after 9/11. Upper East Side pediatrician Francesca 'Frankie' Weissman doesn't have quite as much disposable income as the Manolo moms and Bonpoint babies that frequent her office. She's drawn into the city's circles of old and new money, including those of blue-blooded Samantha Acton; reinvented Californian Judy Tremont; and self-made film mogul Barry Santorini, son of a South Philly cobbler. As mothers stockpile Cipro and gas masks after 9/11, none of them stops believing that 'life could be controlled if only you had the right resources.' As the question of how, when and with whom Frankie will couple narrows, the novel hits a disconcerting number of false notes: points of view shift with jarring speed, a bathetic account of a suicide bombing rankles and it is hard to care much about characters who utter such lines as 'That's love, babe. You always have to give 200 percent.' But Wasserstein gets the trappings and tribulations (of friendship and of romance) right, making her depiction of the rich and fab trying to connect with one another witty and entertaining." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"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... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) 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'; '$300 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. Elinor Lipman's eighth novel, 'My Latest Grievance,' was published this month." Reviewed by Elinor Lipman, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"[Q]uintessential Wendy....But the Birkin-and-Botox babes wear out their welcome faster than last season's Prada, and the warm, witty Dr. Weissman disappears into the New York City skyline. Elements of Style could have used a smidge more substance. (Grade: B)" Entertainment Weekly
"Is this a farcical send-up of New York's elite, or is it earnestly sympathetic women's fiction? The reader never knows, because the author doesn't either. This will not be remembered as an important part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright's oeuvre." Kirkus Reviews
"The ambitious, acquisitive, glossy, and gossipy women are perversely engaging....
"Wasserstein...has done a good job of simultaneously poking fun at high society...capturing a world that is at once fascinating, appalling, and amusing. Chock-full of shopping, mansions, spa treatments, and fine dining, it is a sensuous read....Recommended." Library Journal
"Wasserstein peppers her dishy humor with piquant and poignant insights, transcending the chick-lit clichés that Style flirts with. You would expect no less from such a sharp and generous spirit." USA Today
"[A] delightful novel....Elements of Style is a good read, with a story line reminiscent of Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, although lighter and told from a female point of view." Dallas-Ft. Worth Star Telegram
"[A] sleek, entertaining read that shares much of the wit and astuteness of Wasserstein's plays. But it's less polished than her plays and essays, written with the clumsiness of an author who hasn't mastered the novel's form." Caryn James, The New York Times Book Review
From the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and author of the essay collection Shiksa Goddess (“Utterly delicious”Judith Thurman), a dazzling debut novel, a comedy about New Yorks urban gentry living in a post-9/11 worldthe arbiters of fashion and the doyennes of charity balls; about the rich and the nouveau rich(er), the glamorous and the desperate to be.
We meet Francesca Weissman, the Upper East Side pediatrician rated number one by Manhattan magazine, who takes us into the upper strata of privilege and aspiration (shes originally from Queens with a father in hosiery; life on the fringes of glittering New York is fine with her) . . . Samantha Acton, thoroughbred descendant of the Van Rensselaers and the Carnegies, who defines the social order in the great tradition of Mrs. Astor and Babe Paley . . . Judy Tremont from Modesto, California, daughter of a copher lifes work, her obsession, is New York society and its richest families . . . Barry Santorini, Republican, moviemaker, winner of twelve Oscars, and his wife, the Italian supermarket heiress and former media rep for Giorgio Armani . . . and many more.
As Elements of Style opens out, we see a madcap mosaic of the social lives and mores of twenty-first century Manhattanof romance, work, family, and friendship. Satiric, fierce, touchingand deliciously Wasserstein.
“Pure Wendy! She effortlessly makes the leap from stage to page with a novel that is loving, compassionate, flat-out funny. Wendy loved the word ‘scintillating, which is the best way to describe her stunning Elements of Style.”
“Wasserstein gets the trappings and tribulations (of friendship and of romance) right, making her depiction of the rich and fab trying to connect with one another witty and entertaining.”
“Bold, nimble, and funny to its fingertips, Elements of Style is a delight, a triumph. A book that no self-respecting New Yorker should be without. Those cursed with the hell of multiple residences will self-evidently need several copiesand spares, for houseguests.”
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.
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