For a writer with the gifts Christina Schwarz demonstrated in her Oprah-anointed novel, “Drowning Ruth,” satirizing literary ambition and consumer culture must have been like shooting fish in a barrel. While “Drowning Ruth,” her debut, was a stark mystery set in rural Wisconsin after the first World War, her latest, “All Is Vanity,” covers territory presumably more familiar to a successful novelist — the petty mortifications of the publishing world, vulgar materialism concealed by the muted elegance of high-thread-count yuppiedom and the excruciating, craven desire for the admiration of others.
Yet if “All Is Vanity” isn’t ambitious, it’s often wickedly delicious. And in a book full of shallow obsessions, terrible behavior and arch caricature, it’s impressive that, at moments, Schwarz transcends her own cleverness to let us glimpse the real human longings behind so much manic striving.
The story begins with a familiar relationship — that between dissimilar but devoted lifelong best friends. Margaret, who narrates most of the book, fancies herself brash, precocious and unique, and she can’t help condescending to gentle Letty. As she describes their alliance, “We’re sort of a team, in the classic sense of hero and sidekick, and I don’t think I’m being immodest, but only truthful, when I cast myself as the hero. Of course, she’s much better than I am at many things, but her qualities — patience, for instance, and an easy laugh — are those that make for a good right-hand man.” These lines are typical of Margaret’s blithe sense of superiority, as well as her faith in Letty’s staid decency. By the painful end of “All Is Vanity” both presumptions will be thoroughly unraveled.
“I was a promising child,” is the first line of the book, but we quickly learn that Margaret has become an entirely average adult, and she finds her own mediocrity unbearable. An English teacher at a Manhattan private school, she doesn’t have a bad life. But when she and her husband, Ted, move to New York from Virginia, the vast gulf between the way she perceives herself — as a brilliant woman biding her time — and the way she’s treated by others is painful, a pain Schwarz makes very real. “I, as an English teacher in her mid-thirties from bourgeois Glendale, California, by way of the suburbs of Northern Virginia, was a half-witted, earnest, gray lump in a land of cynical, scintillating intellectuals,” she writes. “And that I could not stand.”
To remedy this dissonance, Margaret quits her job to write a novel. Never mind that she has no idea what she wants to write about, nor any real interest in actually creating a piece of fiction. She says, “Writing a novel, I believed, would be a way to achieve glittering success without the painful and humiliating apprenticeship other well-regarded careers required, and which I ought to have undergone in my twenties.”
Needless to say, this plan does not go well. Margaret’s literary failure is exacerbated by the financial strain her joblessness puts on her and Ted, as well as the lies she tells him about her progress. But as she labors forward with a laughably uninspired manuscript, another story starts emerging in the e-mail correspondence she keeps up with Letty.
It seems that as Margaret’s fortunes nose-dive, Letty’s are ascending via a job her art historian husband lands at a prestigious L.A. art museum. Yet this change of status brings with it new anxieties as Letty comes into contact with people like Zoe and Brad, who are both younger than her and more sophisticated and successful, as evidenced by the quality of their stuff. “It’s not the stuff so much as the graciousness that seems to go with it,” Letty writes, “the careless way Zoe stuck the knife in the marinated goat cheese … Brad’s generous hand with the single malt, the cleanliness of their infant, Hannah, in her pale pink Baby Guess sleeper.” Letty convinces herself that with such possessions, “I would be serene; I would be respectable; I would be a better Letty.”
Michael’s new job and their new social circle drive both of them into a consumer fever as they try to catch up to the Zoes and Brads around them. Yet somehow, Schwarz makes Letty’s acquisitiveness feel visceral while keeping her likable — she never devolves into a harpy like the Annette Bening character in “American Beauty.” Like Margaret, Letty is plagued not by greed but by the chasm between the frazzled woman she is and the tasteful, charming person she wants to be. It doesn’t help that her husband, while doting, starts acting mildly ashamed of her, or that upon learning she’s a homemaker, people blow her off at her own party. She remains funny and self-deprecating, even as she succumbs to the pull of a lifestyle she once would have scoffed at
It’s a lifestyle, finally, that she can’t afford, even with her husband’s new salary, yet convinced that her husband’s advancement depends somehow on her ability to fit in to their new world, she keeps spending. As her world starts disintegrating, Margaret realizes for the first time that Letty’s life is more interesting and dramatic than hers is.
So she steals it, crafting “The Rise and Fall of Lexie Langtree Smith” — a book she calls “a scathing commentary on modern life” — from Letty’s e-mails. Needing material, she even eggs her profligate friend on.
Thus these two very different tales of haphazard social climbing are intertwined to create a very funny tale about bicoastal status obsession. In certain ways, “All Is Vanity” is just the latest take on the female self-improvement novel. It’s “Bridget Jones’s Diary” for women who worry more about prestigious jobs than prestigious boyfriends. Sympathetic readers can delight in characters who are just like them, only worse.
But unlike “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” this isn’t a fairy tale. Rather, it really is a “scathing commentary on modern life” — so much so that it’s occasionally hard to read, fast-moving as the story is. As disasters pile up and egos fracture, you just want to look away. The gap between what these women have and what they feel society demands of them cannot be closed, their humiliation cannot be assuaged. They’re “striving for the world’s respect,” as Margaret writes, and they’ll never get it. That’s why the book, for all the uproarious predicaments its characters find themselves in, finally feels so horribly sad.
Our next pick: A beautiful girl and her mysteriously bruisable cousin share a last summer of innocence in a town that isn’t as safe as it seems