This satirical first novel about nouveau riche name-droppers by Vogue contributing editor Joan Juliet Buck is like a pink-bowed, frilly box of rich chocolates, tasty for dipping into but likely to cause indigestion if a reader overindulges. It is the story of celebrity-seeker Charlene Bromley and her daughter Iris. Charlene, a red-headed beauty who comes of age in the '50s and is star-struck to the point of obsession, travels from Hollywood to Paris to London to New York, acquiring lovers and husbands in a constant search for the ultimate society fix.
Iris, weaned from her baby bottle to a steady diet of social climbing, yearns to be part of the beau monde glitter, but lack of beauty and style condemns her to the role of nonentity. In her desperate search to be more than a mere hanger-on, Iris takes up journalism and writes tacky expose's of friends and acquaintances for a National Enquirer-type magazine called Lookout. Not until she has a love affair with movie star and sex symbol Kid Crane does Iris learn to balance reality against the sugary gloss that lies at the heart of celebritydom.
The story is set in a rich froth of words; witty bon mots, clever bilingual double-entendres and passages almost suffocatingly lush in detail and metaphor. Take, for example, the opening scene in a chic Parisian restaurant where Charlene is lunching, her de'jeuner outfit demonstrating "a certain boldness in the latest style and . . . jewelry of the primitive design favored a quarter century ago: freshly-mined hunks of mineral imprisoned in smudges of gold wire were skewered into the nubbly curry-colored tweed of her suit. At the other tables beautiful women in little hats giggled softly, pale mink coats spitting over the backs of their chairs to reveal satin linings embroidered with flowers and initials." In the back of the restaurant, "a sleek beige gloom prevailed, conducive to longer lunches and chilling gossip. The air palpitated with conflicting smells, the sharp green of Je Reviens, the sienna thrusts of Detchema, the unctuous false repose of Shalimar, the brittle spikes of Femme." Fifty pages of this and most readers will be more than ready for a respite from the heavy adjectival bombardment.
"The Only Place to Be" touches an exposed societal nerve: the national mania with the rich, the famous and the pedigreed. Charlene and Iris are symbolic of our craving to be celebrities or, if that isn't possible, to stand close to someone who is--as if the glamor could rub off and be used secondhand. The theme is developed to its ultimate absurdity, the characters shown in every vice and folly that accompanies sycophancy and its counterpoint, egotism. Iris, bred on fan magazines, relates better to photographs than to people; lusty grande dame of the cinema Vivien Legrande thinks nothing of bedding waiters; and Charlene, in her pathetic yearning for heights she will never achieve, learns the saddest truth of all: That "fame demands only one thing from those closest to it, and that is insignificance."
But Buck founders in the quicksand of her own cynical wit. She is funny, but she is funny without compassion, and her novel suffers from an exhausting overdose of caricature. She pokes fun at her characters, strips them of their dignity and pins them to a board, watching as they squirm and wiggle. Some are unforgettable. I particularly liked Charles Frantwell, Charlene's aristocratic and limp English lover, whose hair cream smelled like curdled lemon tartlet and whose lineage stretched "right back to the man who fed the horses on Noah's Ark."
And who could forget Iris' first vaudevillian venture into journalism, covering a B-grade society party in a scene of first-class slapstick and pratfalls, with tacky trend-setters, supposedly unique designer dresses colliding head on, and the sleazy, with names like Ritzy Cracker, aspiring to star status?
Joan Juliet Buck has a stylistic verve and sophistication rarely shown by new novelists, and for readers who demand only a sharp wit, a collage of satirical scenes and caricatures, "The Only Place to Be" will serve. For those who prefer a novel with engrossing characters and a strong plot, it will be a disappointment.