Cleopatra’s Nose: 39 Varieties of Desire

By JUDITH THURMAN

Men and women suffer from grandiosity in different ways. Men tend toward fantasies of omnipotence, women of uniqueness, Judith Thurman posited in a 2002 essay on Catherine Millet. This latter claim — that womanhood is somehow allied with the pursuit of singularity — lies at the center of Thurman’s new essay collection, Cleopatra’s Nose: 39 Varieties of Desire, an insightful composite of two decades worth of her writings for the New Yorker. Impressive in their range yet grounded in a common sensibility, the essays of Cleopatra’s Nose, taken together, represent a cultural history of extravagance at the turn of the millennium, from its fashion icons (Balenciaga, Armani) to its fads (artisanal tofu, exercise bulimia). The collection occasionally loses sight of its overarching conceit, proving stronger when it remains in the world of couture than when it ventures into literary criticism, but these conceptual detours rarely detract from Thurman’s authority as an arbiter of culture. She has a knack for describing textures — those of both fabrics and lives –in a way that captures the longing, and indeed the variousness, of our collective desires.-