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BOOK REVIEWS | spring 2006

Reviewed in this issue:

Elements of Style By Wendy Wasserstein
Prospero’s Daughter
By Elizabeth Nunez
Hot and Bothered: Women, Medicine and Menopause in Modern America
By Judith A. Houck
Strange Piece of Paradise
By Terri Jentz
How the Pro-choice Movement Saved America: Freedom, Politics and the War on Sex
By Cristina Page

The Uptown Chronicles

Elements of Style
By Wendy Wasserstein Alfred A. Knopf

As Wendy Wasserstein headed off to writers’ conferences and speaking engagements in recent years, she usually brought along plenty of notebooks. Her incipient novel made a fine traveling companion, she told me last summer, when I last interviewed her. “I loved writing my novel,” she said. “I had a good time.”

So will her readers. Made bittersweet by the knowledge that Wasserstein died earlier this year, at 55, of lymphoma, Elements of Style is a voyeuristic romp through Manhattan’s Upper East Side that many will consume in one sitting. Very thin, very rich ladies lunch at Le Cirque, shop at designer showrooms, serve on museum boards, then betray and besmirch one another. They and their assorted spouses cavort and posture their way through elegant supper parties, extravagant resorts, sleazy hotels and even terrorist bombings as they deal with and sometimes cause not just simple heartbreak but the occasional illness and death.

This is not The Heidi Chronicles, Wasserstein’s insightful, Pulitzer Prize-winning 1988 play about the choices and conflicts of baby boomer Heidi Holland and friends. Rather, it is escapist fare more akin to Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities or even a page-turner from master eye-to-the-keyhole writer Harold Robbins. These are not very nice people, and the tragedies that befall them and their offspring aren’t so nice either.

Kindly pediatrician Francesca “Frankie” Weissman, 42, is the book’s fulcrum and perhaps its only sympathetic character as she visits her ailing father, cares for poor children and responds to patients. Reminiscent of other Wasserstein heroines, she is both single and lonely, left to solitary dining while smart, successful captains of medicine and industry opt instead for generally shallow, morality-free, dependent women. Prizing style above all else, these people play by rules far more stringent than those of The Elements of Style, the classic writer’s guide by William B. Strunk Jr. and E.B. White that gives the book its title.

In the book’s acknowledgements, Wasserstein thanks her 6-year-old daughter Lucy Jane for “taking” her to some of the city’s best pediatricians, and fans will recognize many of the author’s obsessions from her extensive personal essays, magazine articles and interviews. She rummages through early experiences at private schools and dance classes, moving on to such things as apartment hunting and her time with premature baby Lucy Jane in a neonatal intensivecare unit. Her investment-banker brother Bruce Wasserstein’s Park Avenue world is clearly referenced here, and so are her own evenings at the New York City Ballet and Hollywood’s Golden Globes.

Wasserstein, who liked to say she was in show business, does know her villains, and perhaps the book’s most fully realized character is movie producer Barry Santorini, a self-made, slovenly kingpin from South Philly who wears dirty sweatshirts to dinner parties and is given to taking anything and anyone he wants. The larger-than-life Santorini drives the book’s cinematic narrative, and I imagine screen rights were sold long, long ago.

Unlike Wasserstein’s conversations and most of her other writings, this novel offers few laughs. Wasserstein never wrote in a vacuum, and even in satire apparently wanted to stay on point. She was so obsessed with where America was going, she told me last year, that she couldn’t turn off the television or turn down chances to speak out for reproductive choice and other issues she cared about. Her novel is awash in reminders that most of her characters’ concerns are frivolous, dwarfed by the horrors of September 11 and the war in Iraq.

Elements of Style is flawed—some flat dialogue, too much product placement, too many coincidental encounters, a too-conveniently unlocked door. She wasn’t yet digging as deeply in print as onstage, but Wasserstein was clearly comfortable in this new arena. Her book marks the debut of an author full of promise, and it is a great shame that this first novel is also her last.

Barbara Isenberg is a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times and Time magazine. Her books include Making It Big: The Diary of a Broadway Musical (Limelight Editions, 1996).

Tempest Tossed

Prospero’s Daughter
By Elizabeth Nunez Ballantine Books

Elizabeth Nunez is a thematically ambitious writer who examines at least a couple of big issues per novel—race, class, assimilation, romantic love, the intersection of all and sundry. In her latest, a reimagining of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Nunez’s ambitions mostly exceed her grasp, and what could have been a brisk, affecting tale about star-crossed lovers collapses under the weight of its many messages. It’s too bad, because transposing the magical realism and multiple themes of transformation in The Tempest to Nunez’s native Trinidad—here an English colony on the brink of independence—is genuine inspiration. The lush Chacachacare, a Trinidadian island where most of the book takes place, is a properly surreal setting, both beautiful and forbidding, and the social and racial hostilities of the colonial English toward the colored natives stand in easily for the exiled Prospero and his feral slave Caliban.

But from the beginning, Nunez takes the parallel too literally, and certain prototypes too much to heart. The Prospero character, a mad horticulturalist slyly named Dr. Gardner, is also an unethical physician who has fled England to avoid prosecution, and a liar, a thief, a paranoid, a stone racist and a child molester to boot. He hardly needs a magician’s cloak and cane to make that clear, but Nunez gives him the props anyway, for no purpose other than to hew to the Shakespearean original.

Gardner’s naive daughter Virginia and his black houseboy/protégé Carlos fare better as characters, and their forbidden love goes much deeper than the relationship between Shakespeare’s ethereal Miranda and quasi-beast Caliban. But here, too, Nunez infuses them with too much. An upright, well-read young man who quotes William Blake and Trinidad’s oppressive history with equal passion, Carlos is not so much a person as a composite that disproves the Caliban-ish stereotype of blacks (especially males) as primitive, unthinking and unprincipled. Virginia is similarly unbelievable, a teenage English rose miraculously free of racist inclinations, despite the white-supremacy venom spewed by her father. So intent is Nunez to make her points, her story often sounds more like a treatise on racism, colonialism and the sexually deviant behavior fueled by both. That Carlos is half-white and Gardner obsessed with crossbreeding exotic flowers to make them even more exotic sharpens her point—why is it that the mixed flower is unique and the mixed person only a mongrel? On this issue, Nunez tilts more toward titillation than exploration; Gardner’s lust for racial purity, white-girl virginity and black-girl “bellywarming” too often reads like something out of a post-Reconstruction bodice ripper.

Prospero’s Daughter is most convincing when it’s grounded in the details and perils of Trinidadian life that Nunez knows best—its cuisine, customs and topography. Ironically, her most notable characters are minor: the boatman who ferries people across the treacherous waters that lie between Trinidad and Chacachacare, the Creole police commissioner with hazy racial loyalties who orders the investigation of Carlos’ alleged rape of Virginia. In their brief appearances, these people tell the story of postcolonial, pre-liberation Trinidad better than Nunez’s overly serious iteration of The Tempest can. This brave new world lies not in the literary past, but at her feet.

Erin Aubry Kaplan is a weekly op-ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times and a former staff writer for the L.A. Weekly.

The Disease That Never Was

Hot and Bothered: Women, Medicine and Menopause in Modern America
By Judith A. Houck

Ten years ago, as my menstrual cycles were becoming less predictable, I wrote an article on menopause for a women’s magazine. I learned a great deal from my research, but even more from the illustration the (male) art director commissioned for the piece: a dowdy, slightly stooped woman walking down a winding path toward a distant, leafless tree about to drop its last piece of fruit.

Reading Houck’s book, I’ve learned there’s nothing new about hoary, depressing images of menopausal women. Physician J.T.R. Clark wrote in 1910, “A woman’s life may be compared to that of a tree. It springs up from the seed, grows beautiful and shapely, bears fruit for time and then her reproductive years are over.” And that was a nice way of characterizing The Change. Other early 20th century doctors described it as a withering, shrinking, closing up. “The pubis looks moth-eaten,” wrote one. Or, consider this 1963 statement by gynecologist Robert A. Wilson, who went on to write the book Feminine Forever, which extolled lifelong hormone replacement therapy: “The unpalatable truth must be faced that all postmenopausal women are castrates.” Or this, from Dr. David Reuben, author of the 1969 bestseller Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid To Ask): “Having outlived their ovaries, [women] have outlived their usefulness as human beings.”

Houck, an assistant professor of women’s studies and of medical history and biothethics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has researched menopausal sentiments expressed by doctors, the popular press and women themselves, from the late 19th century to the present. (Her analysis focused on white, privileged Americans, a limitation readers should bear in mind.) Her writing style is academic but readable, and much of the information she’s unearthed is both horrifying and fascinating. (“Does estrogen cause cancer?” asked a mid-1960s pamphlet from the Massengill company. The reassuring answer: “Only in mice.”) She’s even-handed in her analysis of differing viewpoints, though her objectivity can be problematic, as when she writes, “It is misguided to dismiss Wilson [who declared menopause a ‘deficiency disease’ and was heavily supported by Big Pharma] and others like him for preying on women’s insecurities just to increase drug company profits.” Instead, she believes many women listened to the estrogen-hawking Wilson because he seemed to care about their concerns. I think she gives him too much credit: Don’t all good salesmen pretend to “understand” what others are going through?

Houck’s moderate stance can be frustrating when one longs for her to take a hard slap at medical sexism, but she does make a couple of important political points: first, that we can’t make fully empowered choices about hormone replacement without demanding adequate research to guide us, and second, that menopause is as much a cultural construct as a physical transition, and no drug will ever deal with our feelings about our changing bodies.

Michele Kort is senior editor at Ms.

Crime Seen

Strange Piece of Paradise
By Terri Jentz Farrar, Straus and Giroux

These are the facts: in the summer of 1977, Terri Jentz and a college roommate went on their own self-styled biking tour of America. They stopped to camp roadside in an arid region of central Oregon. In the middle of the night, a man—he looked like a cowboy, Jentz said later—deliberately drove over the two girls as they slept in their tent. Then he got out of his truck and began methodically to hack at them with an ax, as if their stunned and injured bodies were logs needing to be split for the fireplace. Then, just as randomly as he began the violence, the man stopped and drove away. Fact: Jentz managed— with one arm nearly hacked away, dangling at her side—to get help from a passing car. Fact: The girls lived. Maimed and scarred—the roommate partially blinded—but alive.

Strange Piece of Paradise is much more than Jentz’s eyewitness account of that brutal attack of “motiveless malice.” Fifteen years pass between the attempted murders and her compulsion to understand them; by the time she is ready to investigate what happened that night, it is just another unsolved cold case in police files. No arrests had been made. Newspaper clippings had yellowed, and the attack had become just a story, one used, in fact, by poet Robert Pinsky in his collection An Explanation of America. But while the passage of time is bad for police work, it’s good for the work of a writer because it offers perspective, maturity, depth. “I was telling the world a richly annotated version,” writes Jentz. “If there was meaning in this story to begin with, the meaning was larger now.”

With Paradise, Jentz presents the cure for the common memoir, a form of literature recently diminished in the public eye by writers who could not or would not do the heavy lifting Jentz so thoroughly tries here. She employs the diligence of a journalist in reconstructing the verifiable facts of these events, the analysis of a social scientist in reviewing her data, and the heart of a philosopher in considering the implications of the facts. Handled any other way, the events of this book could easily be reduced to a B-grade slasher horror flick, or turned glib if dressed in stylized prose. Jentz, however, writes intelligently and plainly. Reading this work recalled an observation attributed to V.S. Naipaul: “Observe hard, think even harder, and you will arrive at narrative.”

Jentz is skilled at revealing all the elements of her story bit by bit, as if placing parts like specimens under the microscope of her rational mind. Paradise is not a memoir that’s been packaged into an easy story; this is more a series of meditations, a constellation of insights given so the reader comes away not with answers but with profound questions. And that is precisely what the form of memoir was designed to deliver.

Samantha Dunn is the author of two memoirs, Faith in Carlos Gomez (Owl Books, 2005) and Not By Accident: Reconstructing a Careless Life (Henry Holt and Co., 2002).

Higher Ground

How the Pro-choice Movement Saved America: Freedom, Politics and the War on Sex
By Cristina Page Basic Books

Three years ago, on the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, a young employee of NARAL embarked on a mission to find common ground with her anti-abortion adversaries. Cristina Page sought out her opposite number in the right-to-life movement and published a joint op-ed in The New York Times. The piece focused on areas of agreement between the two women, including their common interest in reducing unwanted pregnancies. The column provoked a tepid response in the pro-choice community, where Page’s hope for détente was thought admirable but naive. The angry rebuke from anti-choicers, however, took her by surprise, opening her eyes to a political reality that has since become transparent.

Page charts her growing understanding that what motivates the most zealous of America’s anti-abortion leaders is not simply concern for the fetus. They have as a target nothing less than the scientific revolution that freed sexuality from its age-old shroud of myth and mystery and anchored it in medicine and the human-rights discourse born of the Enlightenment. How else to explain the right’s intensifying opposition to contraception and sex education, even in the face of evidence that progress can be made in reducing unwanted pregnancy and abortion? But evidence, of course, is beside the point.

Page’s thesis is that progressives ought to seize the higher moral ground. Pro-choicers are doing the most work to reduce abortion, alleviate poverty, improve access to health care and create opportunities for families and communities. But who will listen? Coddled by Republicans beholden to their fundamentalist base, America’s right grows ever bolder. Page recites the now-familiar litany of restrictions on abortion, from bans on the willfully misrepresented dilation and extraction procedure to counseling mandates—all culminating in South Dakota’s bold challenge to Roe v. Wade. Even more disturbing are the assaults on scientific integrity by federal agencies: the FDA’s bending to political interference in the over-the-counter sale of emergency contraception; a government website’s faulty information on condom reliability; and millions of dollars poured into ineffective abstinence-only sex-education programs, especially in Africa, where they compromise efforts to contain AIDS.

Page is an advocate, not a social theorist. She offers little explanation for what fuels America’s fundamentalist resurgence, beyond an observation that control of their fertility unleashed women to compete in the workplace—a transformation that makes them targets for discontent. This analysis needs a social and economic frame that incorporates threats imposed on American hegemony by globalization’s assaults on our jobs and terror’s intrusion on our security. But that must wait for another book.

Ellen Chesler is coeditor of Where Human Rights Begin: Health, Sexuality, and Women in the New Millennium (Rutgers University Press, 2005).