Alex Witchel is an epigrammatic writer, arch, chummy, and Nora Ephronesque, which means she is both fun to read and tiresome, too. Like someone showing how clever they are. Every second. You wince sometimes over such quips as "smoking has become the cooties of the Nineties," or this clunker on the interior of the Guggenheim museum: "If you started at the top, it was like going down a toilet in slow motion."
Still, if you get past these forced bits, "Girls Only" is oddly affecting. Based on a clutch of pieces Witchel did for the New York Times (she's been a style and culture reporter there for six years), the book chronicles the relationship between Witchel, her mother Barbara and her younger sister Phoebe as the three embark on various metropolitan-area adventures -- a sleepover at the Stanhope Hotel, Witchel's own wedding (to Times op-ed columnist Frank Rich) or a picnic with actress June Havoc, the younger sister of Gypsy Rose Lee.
This last is the best piece of all, in which Witchel becomes friends with the tough, aging Havoc, whom she has idolized since childhood. Havoc was the quintessential trouper. Abandoned at age 13, she acted in vaudeville while her sister stripped, the two of them eating and sleeping sporadically. Conversely, Witchel was raised in a posh New York suburb by her Ph.D-holding Mom and Wall-Street-dealing Dad "in the Scarsdale life of maids and Mom's credit cards to buffer the blows," she writes. As Havoc tells Witchel: "Your life is such a pillow."
Which is true enough, although Witchel finds common ground between them. "Maybe what (Havoc and I) had in common was the urge to please," she writes. It's this quality which gives the book its poignance. Witchel is powerfully intertwined with her mother, who's as central to her prose sensibility as Alice to Calvin Trillin. Barbara Witchel triumphed over childhood polio, blatantly eats pork outside the house (the family keeps Kosher), loves "Star Trek," smells like "Joy perfume and soap and cigarettes and just a touch of Adorn spray," and used to "wrap a kitchen knife in a yellow paper napkin and tuck it in her evening bag when we went to the theater at night."
Her daughters adore her, and Alex tries mightily to be like her. "Isn't imitation the sincerest form of flattery?" she writes. "With mothers it goes even further. It's the sincerest form of justification. Of their lives." That's no epigram, that's insight, and Witchel at her best.