A Widow Weaves a New Web
Every married woman has worried at some time about a single question: What would my life be like without my partner? Every married woman has also asked the question in a slightly more arch tone, eyebrows lifted, with a different emphasis: What would my life be like without my partner? Elizabeth Berg's The Year of Pleasures (Random House, $24.95) offers a beautifully rendered, fantastical imagining of one woman's adventurous answer to that question. Newly widowed and unfettered from every prosaic concern, Betta Nolan drives to the middle of the country and discovers the house of her dreams in an idyllic Midwestern town where everyone is friendly and welcoming. Once settled, Betta reconnects with her three oldest friends (her college roommates who were just waiting for her all those years, who remained their lovable college selves and were not mad that she was out of touch or anything). She grieves deeply, but she also meets two handsome young men who flirt with her and repair her house. Finally, she fulfills her longtime dream by opening an accessories store called What a Woman Wants, with a tea/dessert bar and retreat center where other women like her can visit with friends, comfortably wear purple, and have a feisty, well-fed, Red Hat-wearing vacation.
Like other Elizabeth Berg novels such as Open House and The Art of Mending, The Year of Pleasures provides total immersion in a world where love and hope are sacred. Berg's universe is full of kind, middle-class people struggling valiantly with real-world issues and finding solace in a vaguely Victorian sentimentality. "The world was full of cynicism and judgment and what I believed was a knee-jerk recoiling against sentimentality," Betta rages at one point. "What had happened to us that we sneered at expressions of love and devoured stories of alienation and rage? Give me the hearts drawn on napkins, the men who walked on the street side of the sidewalk, the woman I met at a party who told me she always turned on Johnny Mathis to clean her bathroom." Only a dedicated misanthrope could take issue with such a sentiment.
The Lower East Side's Melting Pot
Loosely speaking, Mark Kurlansky's Boogaloo on Second Avenue: A Novel of Pastry, Guilt, and Music (Ballantine, $24.95) is about gentrification, music and culinary/cultural confusion in Manhattan's East Village in the late 1980s. It is also a love story, a cookbook, a primer on how not to manage real estate, and a cautionary tale about sushi and eyebrow tattoos.
Kurlansky, the James Beard Award-winning author of books such as Salt: A World History and Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, centers his riotous tale on Nathan Seltzer, owner of the Meshugaloo Copy Shop and father of a precocious toddler. A married man, Nathan lusts in his heart after Karoline; she smells of butter and bakes exquisite cakes above her German parents' pastry shop, the Edelweiss. Nathan is drawn time and time again to Karoline's charms -- and to the Edelweiss strudel, which he picks up every Friday to provide the only tasty component of Shabbas dinner at his parents' house. Various neighborhood issues roil and bubble, with feuds over the correct way to make caponata, the exorcising of various demons, and a drug dealer attempting to go straight by selling locally grown heirloom tomatoes. Throughout, Nathan's father tries to resuscitate a short-lived musical fad called Boogaloo, in honor of a great boogaloo musician, Chow Mein Vega, a fixture of the neighborhood. Kurlansky's historical accuracy is spot-on: The actual 1988 Tompkins Square riot (a regrettable face-off when police attempted to clear the park of demonstrators and habitues) shows up during a slightly confusing dinner party Nathan and his wife attend. The juxtaposition of yuppies serving pink cocktails in a restored brownstone and police with riot gear bashing in the heads of neighborhood denizens is a pitch-perfect symbol of culture clash. Alternately sociological and silly, Boogaloo is a hit.
Conventions and Convictions
Amy Ephron's new novel of manners, One Sunday Morning (Morrow, $21.95), could be an excellent story of social intrigue in the mode of Edith Wharton. It begins delightfully, with a Sunday morning bridge party in 1920s New York interrupted by the horrifying sight of an unmarried young woman and an otherwise engaged young man emerging together from the Gramercy Park Hotel. They are spotted by neighborhood gossips; social chaos ensues.
The problem, however, lies in the novel as well as in us: We live in an age of the obvious. The veiled happenings, the hinted-at scandals that were so delicious in Wharton's novels are merely irritating today. We're accustomed to having cameras in the bedrooms of newlyweds, to watching every movement of seven strangers picked to live in a house. Unless an author tells us what happened, however delicately, it's unsatisfying and frustrating. Wonder what happened that Saturday night? Keep wondering. One Sunday Morning slowly unravels to the point where we find out more or less why Lizzie Carswell and Billy Holmes were doing a walk of shame out of the Gramercy Hotel, but by that time, we barely care.
This is a short novel with too many characters. Ephron, the author of the bestselling A Cup of Tea, occasionally drifts toward the histrionic: "Lucy was always cheerful, forward-thinking, not the least bit triste, and there she was lying on the bed with a tear, unmistakably, a tear, rolling down her left cheek." And the ending is far too cute: The same paragraph begins and ends the book. A Jazz Age novel of manners where the drama doesn't escalate, One Sunday Morning is a diverting, feather-light read that demands little of its reader.
Circle of Friends on the Cutting Edge
Publishing industry wisdom dictates that if a book's title includes the word "bitch," the cover should telegraph "racy." Furthermore, racy apparently requires designing the cover in basic black and white, accented with a smear of red or pink. Taking its cue from the cover design of Elizabeth Wurtzel's Bitch and the anthology The Bitch in the House (not to mention Colleen Curran's new Whores on the Hill), the dust jacket of Martha O'Connor's debut novel, The Bitch Posse (St. Martin's, $22.95), features a black-and-white photo of scantily clad girls, the requisite stroke of pink running down the right side.
The unblemished girls on the cover are a stranger than usual mismatch between marketing and content. The Bitch Posse is about three teenage girls who mutilate themselves. Gore permeates the novel, from the lurid sex scene in the opening chapter to the graphic abortion to the car crash that leaves one of the characters with a "shattered hip and a broken femur, and a barbecued arm." Disaffected BFF's (Best Friends Forever) Rennie, Amy and Cherry are a little punk, a little Goth and entirely depressed as they go through high school in a small Midwestern town in the 1980s. They are obsessed with themselves and each other in the way of many teenage girls; they also engage in a dizzying array of self-destructive behaviors (drugs, violent sex, cutting) that they record in a group journal dubbed the Bitch Goddess Notebook. Their exceptionally dysfunctional relationship fits easily into the current climate of interest in mean girls, female bullies and the secret promiscuous lives of teenagers.
The Bitch Posse is compulsively readable because things just keep getting worse for these girls. Boy trouble isn't only about boys -- it's about making it with the married drama teacher. Drug use isn't just about getting high after school, it's about catching your mom "rigging coke" in the bathroom. O'Connor scatters delicious and slightly macabre details of the mid-1980s' alterna-teen culture throughout. A character going for an abortion pretends she is on "Degrassi Junior High," a TV show about coping with every tragedy life has to offer. Bitch Posse members listen to Sisters of Mercy and read Julian F. Thompson's The Grounding of Group 6, a 1983 novel about teens whose parents send them to be murdered at a boarding school. It's easy to see Posse as the descendant of this and other thrillingly gloomy YA classics such as John Neufeld's Lisa, Bright and Dark, Joanne Greenberg's I Never Promised You A Rose Garden or Paul Zindel's oeuvre.
It's also worth looking at The Bitch Posse as another in a long line of books about teenagers. It comes hard on the heels of Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep, another story about high school (also narrated by an outsider). The Bitch Posse may change the writing rules for these books a bit. To what, remains to be seen. *
Meredith Broussard is the editor of an upcoming anthology, "The Encyclopedia of Exes: 26 Stories By Men of Love Gone Wrong." Her web site is www.failedrelationships.com.