- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 16, 2008

THE SPARE WIFE

By Alex Witchel

Knopf, $23.95, 304 pages

REVIEWED BY JOHN GREENYA

Ah, the lives of the rich and beautiful, how they fascinate us. Or so publishers would have us

believe (and they are probably right). And how satisfying it is for us to believe that they can be just as mean and miserable as we can (and we are probably right).

From Edith Wharton to F. Scott Fitzgerald to Louis Auchincloss and both Tom Wolfes, we see how the mighty have fallen, the masters and mistresses of the universe brought low by their own fatal flaws, the once high and mighty now low and muddy. How sweet it is.

As “The Spare Wife” opens, Jacqueline Posner is using a blow dryer on a pale peach rose that refuses to open “the way it should” and be the star of the centerpiece. (Don’t you just hate when that happens?) The rose is an apt symbol, because the bloom is most definitely off the Posner marriage.

In fact, Jackie is throwing a farewell-to-my-spectacular-fifth Avenue-home soiree d’elegance, one last killer dinner party before becoming the hostess who used to have the mostest.

“The Posners owned twelve homes around the world ” one for each year of their marriage. Every February, on their wedding anniversary, Mike would give his wife an envelope with a key inside and, once aboard their private jet, hand her a ‘destination folder,’ and off they would fly to see their latest plot of paradise ” the mansion in Lyford Cay, the flat in Paris, the killer condo in Aspen.

The problem with each of the properties, Jacqueline had told Ponce, was that Mike only liked buying them. Living in them didn’t seem to interest him. Or at least living in them with her.”

The “Ponce” in whom Jacqueline has confided is Ponce Morris, at 42 still drop dead gorgeous and as slim as one can be this side of anorexia. Two dozen years earlier, she’d taken New York by storm as “one of the last Aryans signed up by Eileen Ford before popular taste went ethnic.”

Today, the author tells us, she looks “something like a preacher’s wife on a hot date,” (somehow, that image eludes me). Years ago, Ponce married Lee Morris, much older and at least as rich as Mike Posner, a nice man who did the even nicer thing of making Ponce set for life by dying. She’d divorced him after years of marriage, but she returned to nurse him during his final illness, and in gratitude he left her even more money. (Don’t you just love when that happens?)

Instead of jet-setting away the rest of her life, Ponce, no airhead, went back to school, finished college and then law school, and now does pro bono work for an organization that places kids in foster homes. So she’s a good person, a certifiably good person. But that’s not why she’s the title character; she’s the title character because she’s such an incredibly good friend. Just look at how she’s helping poor discarded Jacqueline Posner throw this fabulous bash.

So Ponce is perfect, right? Wrong: “Ponce hates sex,” one man half in his cups at the dinner party tells another male guest. “That’s her whole gig, since Lee … her big thing now is being best buddies with all these couples … She’s a professional friend, is what I’m saying … I think Ponce is really an imaginary friend for the middle-aged man.”

With friends like this guy, Ponce hardly needs enemies. But, as it turns out, Ponce hasn’t given up sex at all, and for years has been having a red hot affair with a married man, one of Manhattan’s biggest hot shot doctors, a virtual Dr. McDreamy. And then someone on the make ” cue the theme from “All About Eve” — finds out about it, and the plot thickens, though maybe coagulates would be a better word.

Enter Babette Steele. A comely 20-something low level secretary at Boothby’s — think “Vanity Fair” — she wants to be a writer in the worst way, which is exactly how she goes about it.

When Ponce declines to cooperate by sitting for a feature article Babette wants to do on spec, the younger beauty decides to do an unauthorized hatchet job, and lucks out by seeing Ponce and the famous doctor kissing in a hotel elevator in Chicago. The remainder of the book is given over to the good rich peoples’ struggle to keep the bad Babette’s article from seeing the light of the printed page.

One of the reasons why Tom Wolfe’s “Master of the Universe” succeeded was that he was able to give his characters mythic stature. Unfortunately, there’s nothing mythic about Ponce et al. If I sound unkind, it’s because I’m so disappointed.

Surely, New York is ripe for satire, and worse, at this moment in its history, what with the Donald abroad in the land, the Plaza Hotel so changed that even Eloise has decamped, and both smoking and trans fat expelled from the city’s restaurants.

And Alex Witchel is certainly well-positioned to do so, had she chosen that approach. She’s a staff writer on the New York Times magazine, a regular contributor to the paper’s Dining & Wine section, the author of two earlier books, and, as her bio information tells us, the wife of Frank Rich (whom I am going to take a wild guess and say is the well-known Times columnist, not a plumber in Queens).

The only character Ms. Witchel seems to dislike actively is Babette, yet she gives her enough faults and foibles — to go with her beauty and her beastliness — that you almost feel sorry for the villain, not the victim. Curiously, they all come across as a rather bloodless and uninteresting lot. “The Spare Wife” could use a lot less Ponce and a lot more Pounce.

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide