WEDDING SEASON

By Darcy Cosper

Three Rivers. 340 pp. Paperback, $12.95

Though it's grandly billed "in the satirical tradition of Jane Austen and Evelyn Waugh," this toothsome but unsatisfying little Jordan almond of a novel actually owes a far greater intellectual debt to the 1994 English romantic comedy "Four Weddings and a Funeral," and the Hollywood spawn it engendered in quick succession: "My Best Friend's Wedding" and "Runaway Bride" -- bland artifacts of madcap upper-middle-class pre-marital mayhem.

It's easy to imagine Julia Roberts, star of the latter two movies, cast in the role of Wedding Season's auburn-haired, dour, tomboyish heroine, Joy Silverman, though there are also dashes of both movie-star Hepburns. (Joy is nicknamed "Red," like Katharine in "The Philadelphia Story," and at one point winsomely clambers up an apple tree, a la Audrey in "Sabrina.") Narrating in the ruminative first-person, present-tense that is the current default syntax of "chick lit" -- a genre author Cosper gamely attempts but doesn't quite manage to subvert -- Joy is a self-described "walking antonym for spontaneity," a woman who "loathes being the center of attention," a law-school dropout, prone to Victorian-style fainting episodes, who toils for a ghostwriting company of quirky "hacks at large" called Invisible Inc. The younger child of eccentric, divorced parents, Joy -- the name is ironic; her puss is so sour someone is actually moved to ask her, "Why so glum, chum?" -- has developed a strong aversion to the institution of marriage; "social conventions" give her "a kind of metaphysical claustrophobia." Getting invited to 17 weddings over the course of six months, a circumstance that might be merely amusing or irritating -- or, heck, popularity-affirming -- to the rest of us, plunges her headlong into a vortex of despairing introspection.

Wedding Season teems with so many characters that it could benefit from a seating chart, but Joy's two primary foils are her live-in boyfriend, a dreamboat floppy-haired WASP photographer named Gabriel Winslow (Hugh Grant?) who shares her anti-marriage stance -- with not quite as much conviction, it develops -- plus the inevitable cuddly gay best friend sidekick, Henrietta, aka "Henry" or "Hank," a woman whose Rupert Everett-esque flamboyance is demonstrated by her penchant for T-shirts bearing wry apercus like "What would Joan Jett do?" or "Beer: It's What's for Breakfast." (Booze, by the way, is almost another character in Wedding Season, and Joy is forever joining her marriage-mad female friends for cocktails or tequila shots at the local hotspot, Pantheon, or collapsing, wine-loosened, into an ex-paramour's arms. It's the "let's have another round!" approach to plot development -- another chick-lit staple. Mercifully, no one is spotted shopping for Manolos.)

Cosper energetically conjures up a privileged, hyperliterate world populated with writers, agents and editors at places like X Machina, an "online magazine of literary erotica," clearly patterned after the Web site Nerve.com. Gabe invokes Cheever stories; Joy's dad quotes Philip Larkin poetry, unattributed. We mix and mingle with these folks at a tasteful gathering in Gramercy Park, an "industrial-strength" wedding in the meatpacking district, an "interminable" Sanskrit ceremony on the beach and a coke-fueled Buddhist bash in the Hollywood Hills. We are meant to cluck in amused sympathy as bride after heartless bride, one looking like a "pink piglet," outfits her attendants in Creamsicle-colored ensembles, as a honeymooning couple returns "alight with the self-satisfied nuclear-fusion glow of well-matched codependents." But the book's central conceit is also its fatal flaw: We know from the outset that there are 17 of these send-ups to get through before the heroine's situation will be resolved, and somehow the post-prandial stupor sets in before the daffy buffet even commences. Though apparently arbitrary, the number 17 can't help smacking of marketing savvy (like the cover lines on women's magazines that promise "23 new looks for lips!"), and this prevents us from ever fully engaging with the heroine, likably convention-bucking though she may be. Eventually, inevitably, Cosper presses the fast-forward button: "A month goes by in a white blur of weddings," Joy sighs. "There are white ribbons, white rice, white doves, white cake frosting . . . white lies. My mind gives in to the white, goes blank." At this point, alas, so has the reader's. *

Alexandra Jacobs is a senior editor at the New York Observer.