Elements of Style by Wendy Wasserstein
Elements of Style
by Wendy Wasserstein
Knopf. 307 pp. $23.95
When Wendy Wasserstein died last January at the age of fifty-five, the obituary pages eulogized her as the “voice” of her feminist generation. If that is true, the voice was a decidedly ambivalent one, and had grown increasingly so. Wasserstein’s successful, semi-autobiographical comedy-dramas—Un-common Women and Others (1977), Isn’t It Romantic (1983), the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Heidi Chronicles (1988), The Sisters Rosensweig (1992)—portray the lives of young women from the dawn of the brave new world of feminism through their middle years of professional progress and emotional discontent. By the time she reached her last play, Third (2005), feminist piety had evidently come to seem so constricting to Wasserstein that her protagonist, a professor of English, is driven to admit that one of her conservative students understands Shakespeare, and life, better than she does.
Though Wasserstein’s material was current, her form was old-fashioned. She is often compared with Neil Simon; but (to stick with talents larger than hers) there is also something of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart in her plays, with their recognizable character types, topical allusions, bittersweet realizations, and skillfully constructed dialogue punctuated by gags, jokes, and one-liners. This is Wasserstein’s brand of theater—hardly profound, often contrived, quickly dated, undeniably entertaining.
Not so accomplished is Wasserstein’s posthumously published Elements of Style, her first try at a novel. Set in New York City in October 2001, and clearly intended to delve more deeply than her plays, it portrays the Vanity Fair of upscale Manhattan—the world of yacht parties, private planes, prestigious schools, and charity balls—as it recovers from the shock of 9/11.
The novel’s main heroine is plain, lonely, good-hearted Francesca Weissman—Jewishness is a given in Wasserstein’s work—who has had one foot in this world thanks to her father’s success in manufacturing, which brought the family from Queens to the Upper East Side. A graduate of Spence, Princeton, and Harvard Medical School, Francesca is now a much-sought-after pediatrician. She has lately relocated her practice from Park Avenue to a tougher neighborhood where she can serve both rich and poor, who mingle uneasily in her waiting room.
It is, however, the rich who most engage Wasserstein’s attention. Indeed, much of the novel concerns the classic story line of old money meeting new. Here the exquisite Samantha Acton, a blueblood who “defines the [New York] social order,” is set off against spunky Judy Tremont, the social-climbing daughter of a cop who has managed to land a husband with a trust fund, and Clarice Santorini, trying to act the role of WASP princess to her husband Barry, an alpha male risen from humble roots to fame as a Hollywood film producer.
Faces “freshened” by their doctors, bodies taut from exercise, servants and assistants in tow, these and the novel’s other fortyish matrons work harder than any salaried career girl at managing multiple households, tending favorite causes, raising children when they have them, and above all attaining, maintaining, and upholding status and style. That their lives are threaded with dissatisfaction goes without saying. So does the fact that the plot is driven by the musical chairs of marital infidelity.
To this plot, Wasserstein brings not only heavy doses of satire and even farce (a benefit dance has a “ghetto fabulous” theme) but, perhaps surprisingly, a degree of literary seriousness. The result is a sort of Manhattan chick-lit for English majors, filled with knowing allusions to writers like Bret Easton Ellis, Tom Wolfe, Woody Allen, Edith Wharton, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Even the title is drawn from a literary source: Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, a classic guidebook to writing English used by generations of students.
Predictably, however, the different tones and purposes pull at one another awkwardly. The characterizations are flat and undercooked, and the background theme of terrorism hardly gets a hearing; how could it, in this shallow crowd? Even a character’s supposedly knowing reference to The Elements of Style is handled ineptly when an art dealer by the name of Jil Taillou (né Julius Taittenbaum) speaks of having read the book in his Brooklyn high school and from it absorbed the lesson that “style created content”; in fact, Strunk and White insist that style must be made to serve content (“be clear, brief, and bold,” commands the introduction).
Still, for all its flaws, the novel, like Wasserstein’s plays, manages to be an enjoyable enough diversion, with special appeal, needless to say, for the female contingent. Indeed, Wasserstein may be credited with having started that whole expanse of popular, feminist-inflected entertainments devoted to chronicling the woes of the contemporary woman who has been told she should have it all but somehow always comes up short. Moreover, Wasserstein’s work is in general crisper and more astute than that of her latter-day imitators (compare a typical episode of the TV hit Desperate Housewives), and even this novel yields a concise, if modest, insight.
The point of Elements of Style is not just the old truism that wealth fails to buy happiness; it is that the exorbitant wealth of recent decades buys even less. Clarice muses on how much happier her life might have been if she had married a man willing to help run the chain of supermarkets built up by her Italian-immigrant father: “the pressure to always be the best might have been less intense.” Most of the characters have similar glimmers, wondering from their chilly pinnacles if human existence might not have been warmer and more accommodating on one of the ridges below.
As in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, members of the preceding generation are held out as an altogether finer species. Francesca’s father, Abraham, now far gone into senility, came to America as a child, flew a plane in World War II, achieved success in business, headed a happy family. Samantha’s plastic-surgeon husband Charlie recalls his own father, a hard-working Nebraska doctor who often treated patients without charge. Even Samantha’s crusty forebears come out well, having never been concerned with who had money and who did not. All these salt-of-the-earth types, still recognizably Jewish or Italian or WASP, knew who they were and who they were not, and lived by something more than the photo spreads in Town and Country.
Wasserstein once described herself as a “New York playwright liberal,” adding, however, that because “the politics of the theater . . . often involves an attack on the right wing,” the more challenging task lay in puncturing the pretensions of liberals to be “the good guys.” In Elements of Style, a post-feminist, post-liberal novel, America’s most privileged denizens are free to invent themselves as they please; what they invent often turns out to be mean, petty, selfish, trivial, unreliable, fraudulent, or downright repulsive, and they know it; and they have no one to blame but themselves. No wonder the world of their fathers is looking good again.
Wendy Wasserstein was onto something interesting, and potentially fruitful. Whether she would have worked it out had she lived is impossible to say, but it is a pity we will not get to see her try.