- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 11, 2002

Alex Witchel is a hip, savvy reporter for the New York Times Style section. Sandra Berlin, the heroine of Miss Witchel's first novel, Me Times Three (Knopf, $22, 304 pages), is a hip, savvy, 26-year-old editor and sometimes writer for Jolie! Magazine. The book tells the story of a somewhat sophomoric, ambitious suburbanite out to make her career, find happiness and above all, happy marriage in New York City.
Sandra has it all worked out: She is starting up the ladder of success with her promotion to art editor at Jolie! (even though as she readily admits, she knows nothing about art), her engagement (ring to come) to high school sweetheart Bucky Ross (of Betsy Ross origins), and her friendship with college (Yale) friend Paul, a handsome, flamboyant and very gay (in all meanings of the word) Hollywood agent.
When Sandra's fairy tale falls to pieces and she discovers what a louse her intended is, she devotes her time to finding a new "Mr. Right." She also comes to realize what a nasty rat race Jolie! represents and learns that Paul is dying of AIDS.
"Me Times Three" is uneven. The descriptions of the nastiness, idiosyncracies and egomania at Jolie! are amusing. Miss Withcel's minor characters flash through her narrative with sparkle and personality and her treatment of Paul's illness and death is both graphic and moving. Best of all are Sandra's delightful fairy tales, interspersed throughout the story whenever Sandra is having a particularly difficult time as she turns these events into witty twists on traditional tales.
The weakness of the book is Sandra herself. For a supposedly intelligent girl, she appears overly nave, uninformed and focused on little beyond her love life. Could this truly be an accurate portrayal of an intelligent, well-educated young career woman in New York City in 1988?
But fear not, all's well that ends well: Bucky's bright blue eyes are finally forgotten in the "enormous slate-blue eyes" of Mark Lewis, who writes about art and travel, and a new job in congenial surroundings puts Sandra back on her career track.

What fun to delve into the privileged life of Jo Slater, hostess of exquisite taste, whether in her summer "cottage" in Southhampton or her Park Avenue apartment. Exquisite china, linens, silver and all the accoutrements of millionaire lifestyle, including a passion, quasi obsession, about Marie Antoinette. Jo's most treasured possession is a necklace once owned by the doomed queen of France and the object of a famous intrigue.
Jane Stanton Hitchcock's third novel, Social Crimes (Talk Miramax Books, $22.95, 368 pages), is a deliciously gossipy and amusing semi-satire of New York's high society. Jo (short for Josephine but nee, on the wrong side of the tracks, Jolie Ann Meers of Oklahoma City) has been happily married for 20 years to a considerably older Lucius Slater, who left his first wife for her. Jo befriends an atttractive young French widow, Countess Monique de Passy, only to discover, too late, that her new best friend has betrayed her.
When Lucius dies unexpectedly, Jo finds herself penniless, thwarted in all her attempts at earning a living. All that remains is her necklace, which becomes the inspiration for an imaginative revenge plot. Jo turns her knowledge of the 18th century and Marie Antoinette's life to good use with the necklace as the centerpiece. Will she succeed or not? There's a question mark at the end of the novel.
Whether "Social Crimes" is a roman a clef is best left to the Hamptons in-group to decipher; they will recognize themselves. Miss Hitchcock, while not a mistress of suspense, has written a witty tale of Manhattan high life, sycophantic society, crimes of commission and of omission and greed. Everyone in the book is tainted by the touch of money even Jo finally succumbs.

Brazilian author Luis Fernando Verissimo's The Club of Angels (New Directions, $21.95, 135 pages) is a mordant satire, a brief novel of wit and creativity, ably translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa.
There were 10 of them, members of the Beef Stew Club "named in honor of [their] past lives as ignorant gourmands." Daniel, the narrator recounts his encounter with Lucidio in a wine shop, an acquaintance which leads to a series of exquisite dinners for the members of the Beef Stew Club prepared by the mysterious Lucidio. Once a month, the mysterious stranger cooks a dinner, each time preparing the favorite dish of one of the club's members. Each time, that member dies.
As Daniel tries to unravel the meaning of the deaths of men who did not amount to much in life, he comes to understand that "n death row, everything became definite, everything became ritualized." Each man, knowing his inevitable fate, nevertheless cannot resist the temptation of his favorite dish until those who are left behind feel it necessary to accept their fate in honor of those who have already succumbed.
"The Club of Angels" is both whimsical and filled with black humor. Gluttony, sloth and hedonism underlie the lives of the members of the Beef Stew Club. The mystery is less a triumph of the devil than the despair of the willing victims.

It's easy to get lost in Stanley Park, Vancouver's beautiful and mysterious waterside park. In Timothy Taylor's intriguing first novel, Stanley Park (Counterpoint, $25, 432 pages), the park is home to gypsies, political refugees, homeless families and the flotsam and jetsam of urban life. These social outsiders are being studied by the Professor, who lives deep in the park, eating what he finds there. He is intrigued by the unsolved murder of two children who died mysteriously in the park years ealier. (These muders are a true incident.)
The Professor's son, Jeremy Papier, a chef trained in France, has just opened his own restaurant, the Monkey's Paw, featuring local products. Jeremy has made a critical, albeit not a financial, success. He quickly runs up enormous credit card debts that eventually force him to take on a partner, his estranged father's neighbor, Dante Beale, owner of the successful Inferno International Coffee Company.
Jeremy hates the proposed new restaurant, a glittery, fancy affair, and he subtly sabotages its opening night festivities.
"Stanley Park" vacillates between satire running to farce on the one hand, and a haunting psychological realism on the other. Jeremy's friends from tongue-studded sometime girlfriend Benny, to curiously precocious godson Trout are off-beat and well drawn. Dante is a vulgar gangster with a heart of gold; the inhabitants of Stanley Park are touchingly human.
Mr. Taylor has great fun with his recipes, especially the delicacies Jeremy prepares with the wildlife in the park. His kitchens gleam with authenticity and his division of Vancouver chefs into Crips (those going for culinary novelty) and Bloods (the traditionalists) is inspired. Caramelized squirrel and barbecued sparrows are cuisine du jour in the park. Despite an overindulgence in sixties pot culture, "Stanley Park" is a fine and original debut novel.

Corinna Lothar is a writer and critic in Washington.


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