Book World: Review of 'You or Someone Like You' by Chandler Burr

By Donna Rifkind
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, July 7, 2009

YOU OR SOMEONE

LIKE YOU

By Chandler Burr

Ecco. 319 pp. $25.99

Chandler Burr's challenging first novel is many things: a glimpse into Hollywood culture, an argument about religious identity, a plea for the necessity of literature. According to the author's Web site, it's a book that took him many years to write, and it carries the burden of that effort manfully. It's also dramatically different from the author's previous works.

Before his foray into fiction, Burr was best known for two books about the science of smell and the perfume industry: "The Emperor of Scent" (2002) and "The Perfect Scent" (2008). In 2006, he became the scent critic for the New York Times, an appointment that caused more than a bit of eye-rolling in the journalism world. That derision was sadly misguided, for it turns out that Burr, in both his Times columns and his nonfiction books, is a hugely entertaining and a boundlessly knowledgeable commentator on the fascinating amalgamation of science, business and art that is the contemporary world of perfume.

One of Burr's chief triumphs in those previous books was his ability to craft the scent industry's often abstruse activities into a beautifully articulated story, with three-dimensional characters and a plotlike narrative in which the reader is generously made welcome. His fans thus have reason to hope his new novel shares that strength.

That novel begins with a narrator named Anne Rosenbaum (nee Hammersmith), a literature PhD and the wife of a big-time Hollywood executive named Howard. The Rosenbaums live in a hilltop Los Angeles mansion with their son, Sam, a high school senior who attends a fancy private school. Born in England to a British diplomat father and an American mother, Anne had lived all around the world before meeting Howard at Columbia in the 1970s. She has always felt rejected as a shiksa -- a disparaging term for a non-Jewish woman -- by her Brooklyn Jewish in-laws, and she stays aloof from the showbiz community, mostly populated by Jews, in which Howard is ensconced. She takes refuge in literature, which serves her well as a distancing tool, since, as movie people like to remind her, "Nobody reads in Hollywood."

But things change, as they always do, in novels and in life. A studio head casually asks Anne for a list of reading recommendations, which leads to the creation of an informal book club helmed by Anne, which then goes viral: Soon, industry insiders are jostling to join Anne's growing rotation of reading groups and imbibing the work of Dos Passos and Christina Rosetti as if it were Jamba Juice. Before too long, Anne's the subject of profiles in the New Yorker and Entertainment Weekly and appears on the cover of Vanity Fair as the entertainment world's book guru.

As Anne's new career takes off, her marriage begins to go south. When her son returns from a spring-break trip to Israel, where he was kicked out of an Orthodox yeshiva for having a non-Jewish mother, Howard is stricken by the boy's expulsion. He undergoes a full-blown religious crisis, morphing from a devil-may-care secular Jew into a "ba'al teshuva," or one who returns to faithfulness. So life-altering is Howard's new commitment to Judaism that he tries to sever all contact with Anne. Devastated, Anne communicates with Howard by sending him subtle literary messages through the eager rumormongers among her Hollywood book-clubbers.

An innovative feature here is that all those book-club members, along with a slew of literati, are real-life figures, from DreamWorks CEO Stacey Snider to actor Albert Brooks to New Yorker staffer Anthony Lane. This is a roman that needs no clefs, and it's generally an interesting mash-up. Where Burr gets into trouble, though, is with his purely fictional characters.

Because the unraveling of the Rosenbaum marriage appears only from Anne's perspective, the novel becomes mired in a prolonged series of her diatribes against the unfair exclusiveness of religion in general and of Judaism in particular. Awkwardly silent Howard never airs his side, so the story is something of an echo chamber, with nowhere to go. And on every occasion, one-dimensional Anne is a dour pedant: In one scene, she recites a William Blake poem in order to comfort a Spanish-speaking gardener who's been hit by a car (never mind that all the Latinos in Burr's Los Angeles are maids or gardeners), droning on until surely the poor man must yearn for death rather than listen to this woman for another minute.

Anne's point, pounded home throughout the narrative, is that literature is a uniter while religion's a divider. Maybe so, but somewhere she's forgotten that the other key ingredient in literature is delight. When it abounds, as it has in Burr's previous books, the reader is a joyous participant. But when it's in short supply, that reader -- like Anne herself -- is reduced to little more than a peevish outsider.

Rifkind is a critic in Los Angeles.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company