- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 8, 2006

The traumatic events of September 11 are starting to find their way into contemporary fiction. They show up in two recent releases — as disturbing background noise in one, as a clever plot device in the other. A third is set comfortably in the days before the word “terrorism” was in everyday use, in 1970s California.

Playwright Wendy Wasserstein died in January of this year (of a rapid lymphoma), a few months before the publication of her first novel, Elements of Style (Knopf, $23.95, 307 pages). With its eye-catching pink cover and many pages of witty dialogue, the book displays the verve and humor that characterize Wasserstein’s award-winning plays; as in her drama, the focus is on contemporary female experience. The milieu is upper-crust New York, the time one month after the planes hit the World Trade Center.

Colorful events and characters swirl around Dr. Frankie Weissman, a lonely, forty-something pediatrician preoccupied with the decline of her aging father and the shift of her practice from a respectable, even chic, location to Fifth Avenue at 102nd Street, an address that allows her to mix welfare mothers with her regular monied clientele and, thus, perfectly expresses her “long history of ambivalence toward the entire privileged New York landscape.” Frankie is a serious woman without social pretensions but claustrophobically surrounded by them. Her ambivalence is, clearly, the author’s.

In fact, the competitive neuroses and shallow self-absorption of Frankie’s acquaintances — many of them the parents of her patients — are Wasserstein’s real subject here, conveyed in both broad brush strokes and exquisite detail. Samantha and Judy and Clarice are types — the blue-blood aristocrat, the desperate social climber, the sweet Good Girl married to the Bad Boy. They wear “$1,950 rust crocodile Manolo Blahnik mules,” pink cashmere from Carolina Herrera, “Yves Saint Laurent red harem pants with a red velvet and gold embroidered sleeveless vest.” Their cars are Mercedes, their jewels are from Cartier, their bags are Hermes. They get Botox injections, take Ativan, learn Pilates, lunch at La Goulue.

The endless brand names that define their world make for entertaining reading but, combined with these women’s lack of meaningful inner lives, of scruples or morals, they help create a portrait of them that is amusing (and often laugh-out-loud funny) but is also dismissive. Samantha and Judy (and some of the book’s male characters) seem to truly believe that the most significant thing about them is their style.

But the gnawing undercurrent of anxiety the characters all feel in the wake of September 11, and the ghastly sequel to that attack that Wasserstein imagines, coexist uncomfortably with this exaggerated, cynical portrait of New York life. It is too bad we cannot look forward to future works blending Wasserstein’s wit and powers of observation with the serious concerns she suggests here.

• • •

In L’America (Harcourt, $25, 304 pages), Martha McPhee, author of two previous novels and the daughter of masterful nonfiction writer John McPhee, writes about a romance between an Italian and an American who love not only each other but also each other’s countries. Cesare, scion of the centuries-old, fabulously wealthy Cellini family of Citta in Northern Italy, dreams of “the big roads of America of which Simon and Garfunkel sang … a place where people did what they chose and anyone can become anything.”

Beth, who grew up on a communal apple farm founded by her brilliant hippie father in memory of her mother (who died when she was three), appreciates Italian cuisine and language; she is fascinated by its painting, architecture, sophistication and long history.

The story unfolds with the impressionistic randomness of memory, opening as Cesare, a middle-aged man now married to someone else, learns that Beth has died, a victim of September 11. The past is slowly revealed — the sweetness of the first encounter on a Greek island when they were young, the ups and downs of long visits in both countries, Beth’s obsessive desire to hang on to Cesare long after any real love is gone.

The ways in which their families and national backgrounds define and, ultimately, claim Beth and Cesare, are evoked with skill. When Cesare brings her to his family home in Citta, “it takes his parents months to learn Beth’s name, to stop referring to her as the American.” When he celebrates Thanksgiving on the Pennsylvania farm where she grew up, Cesare sees Beth “bundled up in a sweatshirt and sweatpants, down vest, and running shoes, and understood that she made sense here. Creases made by his mother’s maids still lined his jeans. The creases made no sense.”

The contrasting of American and old world viewpoints through repeated layers of telling detail is the novel’s primary satisfaction. It is, in fact, the book’s real subject, the story Beth and Cesare were created to tell and one from which they never quite emerge as fully blooded, likeable characters in their own right.

• • •

Inez Ruin, who narrates Martha Sherrill’s lovely The Ruins of California (Penguin Press, $24.95, 315 pages), is a shy girl in corrective shoes at the book’s opening in 1969 and by its end, in 1980, has become a beautiful, suntanned young woman aware that she’s grown up too fast. Hers is a vivid story of the reckless Seventies.

Evocative details set the scene — earth shoes, est sensitivity awareness training, incense, hot pants and lots of talk of freedom from the “brainwashing” of traditional expectations. The decade’s excesses are personified by Inez’s father, the utterly charming, maddeningly immature and self-centered Paul Ruin.

He is divorced from Inez’s mother, a gorgeous Mexican flamenco dancer turned Los Angeles suburban real estate salesperson, and from his first wife, the wealthy mother of Inez’s handsome, older half-brother, Whitman. The succession of girlfriends Inez meets on her San Francisco visits with her father is one of the fascinations of her childhood.

The book’s early chapters, which take Inez from her first solo visit to Dad, to Thanksgiving at her elegant Ruin grandmother’s house and into junior high school, beautifully convey the way a child experiences things, not quite understanding what adults say and do, sensing meanings that only later come clear. Inez is aware of her grandmother’s slightly overdone warmth towards her mother, “the kind of unabashed acceptance that, I later learned, she reserved for servants and very rich friends.”

Her relief when her mother leaves is replaced by the anxiety of seeing her father who makes a big deal about not enjoying visits to his mother. “For years,” Inez reflects, “I thought the agony was about Easter or Christmas or Thanksgiving — he hated all holidays — or maybe just about me.”

The subtext to Inez’s typical adolescence — anxiety about school, watching tv with a best girl friend, beginning to notice boys — is her father’s open-minded embrace of the casual permissiveness that pervaded the era. Inez is not quite in high school yet when her dad asks her, “Are you up for a little dope?” He tells her that, after the first few experiments, her love life will be “manageable and fun.”

Paul is enthusiastic when Whitman opts for a year of surfing from Baja to New Zealand instead of college, and accepting when he doesn’t come home for his grandmother’s funeral. “Whitman and I,” Inez notes, “were supposed to have freer and more creative young lives than he’d been allowed.”

Paul and Whitman and Inez are fully believable characters, and in this very satisfying book their actions lead to unanticipated sorrow, to painful self-knowledge, to an acceptance of messiness and imperfection — in short, to consequences the reader recognizes as true.

Stephanie Deutsch is a Washington writer and critic.

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