(St. Martin's)
Everybody Rise

By Stephanie Clifford

St. Martin’s. 376 pp. $26.99

Little is more delicious than watching an ambitious but tragically flawed protagonist brought down — especially in a designer cocktail dress. In “Everybody Rise,” debut novelist Stephanie Clifford has written a smart tragicomedy about a young woman attempting to infiltrate the “Primates of Park Avenue” crowd.

It all starts at Sheffield, the tony prep school of heroine Evelyn Beegan. “There was hardly a post-1996 car to be seen on the field,” Clifford notes. Among these old-money Volvos and creaking Mercedes, Evelyn is setting up an alumni tailgate fete with her smarmy parents, Dale and Barbara. Evelyn has reluctantly returned to her alma mater to bag valuable new members for her new job at a start-up called People Like Us.

Mrs. Beegan is a scheming and superficial Mrs. Bennet doppelganger, criticizing everything, including her daughter’s lusterless pearls and her choice in men. “I don’t want you to make the same mistake I did,” she tells Evelyn. “Marrying someone on the edges of the circle just puts you on the fringes of the circle, don’t you see?”

Although Evelyn initially resists these maternal machinations, she panics and clings to the Manhattan social ladder when her father faces white-collar prison. After signing up the fabulously well-connected Camilla Rutherford for a People Like Us page, Evelyn becomes increasingly entangled in Camilla’s world, fitting in work amid last-minute pedicures and cotillion-planning committee meetings. Evelyn fawns over the last few dozen people on Earth who care about tuxedo pumps and Tuxedo Park, and how the two are related.

Occasionally, Clifford’s writing can’t keep up with her ferociously incisive class commentary; a few sentences pack more material than Camilla’s weekend duffel might hold. But the author demonstrates her chops as a journalist (she’s a New York Times reporter) when the action moves from satin dresses to slapstick, which has the pacing of a tight news piece. (The book itself made news when a 36-year-old Clifford snapped up a reported seven-figure deal for it and then sold film rights to Fox 2000.)

After doing something unforgivable in an Adirondack lodge decorated in Yale blue and white, Evelyn makes a desperate move at the annual Fruit Stripe regatta, named in honor of the Beech-Nut Chewing Gum dynasty. Evicted from her former friends’ camp, she calls another, older friend’s mother and asks if she can row for that camp’s team, hoping her Sheffield crew experience will help her win the regatta and restore her reputation. The water-bound humiliation that follows might sink a less confident writer, but Clifford delivers a sagacious nod to the charmed life.

Although “Everybody Rise” owes much and pays homage to its predecessors, particularly Edith Wharton’s “The House of Mirth,” it’s no copycat — especially since Evelyn’s fate takes a turn as sharp and smart as her creator’s intellect, making this tale a 21st-century fable of one woman’s reconstruction.

Bethanne Patrick is a freelance writer and critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.