"A Certain Age"

In her best work in years, the author shows she's been studying at the Wharton school.


Mary Elizabeth Williams
August 10, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

The cover of Tama Janowitz's latest novel, "A Certain Age," is dominated by the image of a drain -- and that's exactly what its heroine's life is headed down. Florence Collins may be a beautiful, educated woman with an enviable apartment and a statusy job at a lower-tier auction house, but she's also single, the wrong side of 30 and in debt up to her expensively plucked eyebrows. And this combination, in Florence's world, is a disaster of insurmountable proportions. Life for an unmarried, ambitious but unconnected would-be socialite at the end of the 20th century, it seems, isn't any better than it was for one at the end of the 19th.

To illustrate this theory, Janowitz has inserted a hefty sampling of plot points and characterizations from Edith Wharton's 1905 masterpiece, "The House of Mirth." There's a desperate, aging orphan, jealous wives, bad investments, even an ironic side trip to visit a milliner -- with the difference that these elements are now plunked down in the very 1999 milieu of trendy restaurants, drug abuse, blow jobs and corporate downsizing. The result is a work that may be Janowitz's most biting and complex -- even though her theory is ultimately unconvincing. The world simply is different for the urban woman since she got the vote and the pill.

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And Florence Collins, alas, is no Lily Bart. Wharton's heroine, for all her foolish, self-destructive choices, nevertheless possesses a tragic, trusting appeal. More important and enduring, at her core she manages to retain a self-respecting contempt for the upper class she needs to penetrate in order to survive. Florence, on the other hand, confesses she's "shallow and superficial" and seems bent on proving it. She parties and fills her soulless pied-`-terre with expensive items bought on credit instead of furthering her career or even seriously husband-hunting, despite her contention that "marriage is still the great achievement." When, over the course of one sultry and scandalous summer, her life spins out of control, it's not a hypocritical, patriarchal society but Florence's own messed-up priorities that are to blame.

Janowitz's eye for detail has always made her writing a dizzying sensory overload, and she's at her peak here, cramming the pages with intimate descriptions of cocktail-party appetizers, well-heeled women in their perfect little outfits and the murky, overflowing toilets at a Hamptons beach house. She's great on the scenery, and she can be downright scary when she's inside Florence's neurotic head -- her dry, mocking style suits the catty, self-absorbed demimonde Florence moves in. Ultimately, however, it's not Janowitz's talent but her protagonist that fails her. We know Florence is a wreck, but why, exactly? She's too weak-willed and air-headed to sympathize with, not clever enough in her social climbing to love to hate.

Midway through the story, Florence observes that she doesn't understand the women of Austen and Wharton, "wandering around suffering for love." But what are we to make of Florence Collins, a turn-of-the-century woman who wanders around suffering for no good reason at all?


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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