A Certain Age

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Overview

From the bestselling author of Slaves of New York comes a hilarious, clear-eyed, satiric novel about the sad plight of a misguided woman on the make in Manhattan. Thirty-two-year-old Florence Collins is an "aging filly-about-town"--still beautiful enough to be (sometimes) invited to the best parties and the right restaurants, but unmarried and rapidly going broke. In her world, marriage to a wealthy man is all that can save her, although Florence's hard-hearted search for ...
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Overview

From the bestselling author of Slaves of New York comes a hilarious, clear-eyed, satiric novel about the sad plight of a misguided woman on the make in Manhattan. Thirty-two-year-old Florence Collins is an "aging filly-about-town"--still beautiful enough to be (sometimes) invited to the best parties and the right restaurants, but unmarried and rapidly going broke. In her world, marriage to a wealthy man is all that can save her, although Florence's hard-hearted search for security and status takes her on an inevitable downward spiral.

New York "society novels" at the turn of the nineteenth century gave us a piercing look at the world and rituals of the city's wealthy; Janowitz here casts that tradition in a fresh light, giving us a tirn-of-the-century society novel that demonstrates how little seems to have changed. In a sly and unforgettable portrait of New York's haute monde, Janowitz brilliantly evokes a young woman's struggle for love and survival in the city that is as unforgiving today as it was a hundred years ago.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Her best ever."--Harper's Bazaar

"Janowitz has penned a brutal update of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, accurately analyzing the social codes and economic hierarchy that functions in the New York she knows, as Wharton did a century ago." --Detour

"Smart and sassy." --The Boston Globe

BUST Magazine
Part modern-day Wharton, part updated Austen, part pissed-off, post-Warhol diatribe on greed, A CertainAge is a ruthless portrait of how wrong a girl can go in Gotham.
NY Times Book Review
If there's anything Tama Janowitz knows about, it's the sheer savagery of our most chic and ultrasophisticated social arrangements.
From The Critics
In A Certain Age, a portrait of late-capitalist, fin de siècle New York, Tama Janowitz chronicles the travails of an "It' girl, one of those creatures who seem to emerge straight from the surface-obsessed pages of The New York Times Sunday Styles section or out of the glut of slick women's magazines, like Glamour or Allure. As Janowitz writes, "There were hundreds, perhaps thousands of women like herself: They worked in art galleries, on magazines, for investment companies. They all had poise, little black cocktail dresses, black pumps with the latest heel. They went to screenings, to parties at the Museum of Modern Art, to fashion shows.'

Thirty-two-year-old Florence Collins has dedicated every facet of her existence—her "society-girl' education at Sarah Lawrence, her job at a second-rate auction house, her dwindling inheritance from her late mother—to one purpose: marrying rich. At the beginning of the novel, Florence tells her only real friend, Darryl (who is taken out of the "potential husband' category because of his "do-gooder' status as a homeless advocacy lawyer):

"I see that the disease of the twentieth century is wanting to be rich. You don't get real power as a woman—you still get it by being married to a powerful man . . . At least I'm honest enough to see the world for what it is and know what it is I'm going after. Since the disease is here, and it's here to stay, why pretend that what I want is so dishonorable or distasteful?'

Florence's age is not the Age of Innocence (although Janowitz refers repeatedly to Edith Wharton), or the Gilded Age(although it has parallels), but the age of commodification, in which Florence packages herself as a potential wife-to-be, forgoing a retirement fund so that she can spend the entirety of her paltry twenty-six thousand dollar annual salary "on maintenance for herself.' Janowitz writes, "Her facade was her property. It was an item she possessed, which she groomed and dressed in order to achieve her goals.'

With a keen eye for detail and a dry wit, Janowitz exemplified mid-'80s bohemian life in her bestselling Slaves of New York, which catapulted her to Brat Pack celebrity status, along with Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney. More than a decade and four mediocre novels later, it is clear that Janowitz's literary skills are best suited to the vignette format of her most successful book. (It is interesting to note that the three Brats have all reappeared recently with New York-now updates of their first, best works.) In A Certain Age, Janowitz succeeds in capturing the spiritlessness of nineties wanna-be-in-society life in her portrayal of the downfall of a determined, yet imprudent, material girl, but unfortunately absence is all there is.

Florence's passive affair with her friend's husband and subsequent public humiliation and ejection from the couple's Hamptons home during a dinner party (covered in the tabloids, of course) spark a series of misfortunes and ruinous choices. An ill-advised investment in a non-existent restaurant that totally depletes her inheritance, an affair with a crack-smoking wine connoisseur, the loss of her glamorous yet low-paying job, and eviction from her Upper West Side apartment follow inevitably.

While Janowitz's prose expertly mimics the omnipresent messages of conspicuous consumption in today's culture—as found in the glossy magazines that Florence devours—it never rises above their level or penetrates their glossy surfaces. Her attempts at imparting great meaning are limited to clunky literary references to Wharton, Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald and, especially, Henry James. In Janowitz's insight-deprived, late-twentieth century version of James' The Portrait of a Lady, Florence is a not-so-independent Isabel Archer, the secretly rich Darryl (who adores her) is the consumptive Ralph Touchett, and Eurotrash druggie Rafaello is the seductive Gilbert Osmond.

Like the latest novels of her '80s cohorts—Ellis's Glamorama and McInerney's Model Behavior—A Certain Age feels empty, as does Florence: "It was only a matter of time before she too joined their ranks, abandoning feelings—anguish, despair, hope, caring, understanding—thoughts, wishes, dreams, ideals. She had so few of those things already.' In their most recent glam-obsessed works, all of these novelists have adeptly described the so-called "disease of the twentieth century' Florence refers to, but none has offered even a glimpse of a cure.

At the beginning of Janowitz's tale, Darryl (the only character in the novel who could be described as moral) tells Florence: "You might have had a chance of becoming a real human being—but you've devoted yourself to being shallow, superficial and unreal.' Unfortunately, the same can be said of A Certain Age. —Margaret Juhae Lee
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A sordid, contemporary rendition of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, this unflaggingly downbeat comedy of manners charts the cruelties visited upon fashionable Manhattan women seeking husbands and social status before the clock runs out. Like Wharton's Lily Bart, Janowitz's protagonist is, in the words of a society gossip column, "an aging filly about town," whose head spins with fantasies of a fashionable mate, flights on the Concorde, a 15-bedroom apartment furnished with "Biedermeier, French club chairs, Mies van der Rohe." Shedding money from her rapidly dwindling trust fund, Florence Collins blazes a promiscuous, startlingly self-destructive path from the Hampton estate of her all too ephemeral friends, Nathalie and John de Jongh, whose daughter she carelessly allows into the ocean unattended an event that leads to the child's eventual death from pneumonia to vacuous Manhattan cocktail parties, art openings and baby showers. Vying for her attention are a circle of men, from investment banker John de Jongh, who forces himself on Florence while his wife sleeps nearby, then persuades her to invest her last $25,000 in a hopeless restaurant venture; the Italian playboy Rafaello, who visits her for quick sex and introduces her to crack cocaine; and Darryl, an earnest lawyer and advocate for the homeless whom she rejects for his lack of funds. What poignancy the novel offers is continuously undercut by the author's arch contempt for virtually every character, particularly the beautiful and insipid figure of Florence herself, and the novel's other protagonist, the city of New York, whose denizens are "in the convulsive, terminal stages of a lengthy disease, the disease of envy whose side effects were despair and self-hatred." At one point, as Florence flips through a profile of a pampered starlet named Ibis in a glossy magazine, Janowitz The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group writes, "If Florence had seen Ibis on the street, she would have strangled her quite happily." By the end of this relentlessly cynical tale, readers may feel the same way about Florence. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Florence Collins is in trouble. She's 32 and attractive, but she isn't married, has no prospects in sight, and is running out of the money left from her mother's will. In addition, she spends the weekend in the Hamptons with friends Natalie and John, only to find John at her bedroom door with love on his mind. If that isn't enough, the next day she almost lets their daughter, Claudia, drown in the ocean in an innocent attempt to let the girl have some fun. Things continue to deteriorate during the course of the book as we watch Florence reject suitors and spend money she doesn't have in a vain attempt to fit in with the "right" crowd and land a wealthy husband. Her dead-end job appraising jewelry for an auction house and her delusions of grandeur bring her nothing but trouble. In her sixth novel, Janowitz (By the Shores of Gitchee Gumee, LJ 7/96) uses her trademark biting wit to take a dark, satiric look at being young, female, and alone in modern Manhattan. Recommended for public libraries.
— Robin Nesbitt, Columbus Metropolitan Library, OH
Kirkus Reviews
Vaguely matured author Janowitz (By the Shores of Gitchee Gumee, 1996, etc.) creates a well-rounded, static character, smartly walks her through New York's social paces, and succeeds in creating a fully adequate novel. Janowitz characters once were indifferent to the harms they caused others, but Florence Collins at least justifies her innocence. Collins, a 32-year-old unmarried, underpaid employee at an auction house, makes the mythic summer pilgrimage to the Hamptons, where Natalie and her husband, John, entertain in high style. Natalie is a winner in Florence's eyes, having married a wealthy, if unfulfilling, husband. After a trio of mishaps, Natalie accuses Florence of stealing her husband, destroying her sumptuous home, and attempting to drown her child, Claudia (who dies weeks later). Naturally, Florence is exiled back to New York, where her hunt for a mate takes precedence over paying her bills, maintaining her dignity, and keeping her job and her friends. She fruitlessly dates Italian playboy Rafaello, is accused of Claudia's murder, and spurns the love of sincere-but-penniless Daryl. Meanwhile, she stumbles on a sack of valuable jewelry intended for the auction house, and when fired from the job, she keeps the gems. After a crack-smoking night with Rafaello, Florence is evicted from her apartment, loses the precious jewels, and John scams her out of her last $25,000. And it seems sincere Daryl is secretly wealthy. Though the pace of Florence's tumble slackens in the second half of the story, the parties, openings, and crack highs are deftly sketched. Yet she learns nothing from her travails: she is an unchanging sensibility in a fickle world. Luck has it that she finds thejewels in the end, her transparent personality unaltered. While Florence's declining fortunes in a crass city are well-described, her failure to achieve any wisdom about her life makes it hard to sympathize with her misfortunes.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385496117
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/28/2000
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.99 (h) x 0.73 (d)

Meet the Author

Tama Janowitz is the author of Slaves of New York, A Cannibal in Manhattan, American Dad, The Male Cross-Dressers Support Group, and By the Shores of Gichee Gumee, and is the recipient of two NEA grants in fiction, as well as a New York State Council of the Arts Award in Fiction. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter.
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Read an Excerpt

She had an urge to tap his head with a spoon. It might wake him out of his trance. She could visualize the yellowish brains trickling over his glasses frames, such mild yolk--and the other passengers on the jitney to the Hamptons would no doubt quickly whip croissants out of their weekend luggage and come to dip the corners in the soft stuff, hoping to taste so much money.

"Florence . . . !" Charlie said. "How are . . . you?"

She grabbed the seat next to his.

"I would normally . . . drive," he said.

"You usually drive to the Hamptons on the weekend?" Florence asked.

He nodded. "Only my car is in the garage."

"Being fixed," Florence said. Maybe having so much money had made him sluggish, softened his brain, like the last Emperor of China. He seemed to be cocooned in something. He seemed swaddled, a great distance away, though she was right beside him. The traffic chugged forward and died to a halt. The air was gray and thick with exhaust. Here there were no trees, only old factories and warehouses, like rusted shipwrecks jutting from cement. If there was already so much traffic, it would be midnight before the bus got to the Hamptons.

"Not . . . exactly," Charlie said. "You see, a few . . . weeks ago, I left it . . . parked in front of that new restaurant, Derek and Trevor's . . ."

"And somebody . . . hit it?" Whatever he had was catching. She was speaking slowly too.

"No . . . it's a convertible, you see, and the roof was closed. When I got into the car, I thought, Something stinks, and next to me, on the passenger's seat, some idiot had thrown a fish head."

"Why would they do such a thing?"

"I can only assume . . . because I parked in front of someone's yard, and I know there have been a lot of local complaints in Bridgehampton that Derek and Trevor opened a restaurant there. I threw the fish head onto the sidewalk. Well, it was so warm and sunny I opened the roof . . . and this is sort of . . . complicated . . . however . . . a few days later I noticed . . . there was a terrible smell . . . and I cleaned out the car . . . but the smell didn't go away. And after another week I tried to clean it again. I put the roof up . . . because I was going into the city and--"

"Weird," Florence said. "And you really don't think it was some girl or something?"

He either didn't like her question or, having begun, couldn't stop before he had finished his story. "And when I put up the roof . . . I found wedged down in the back part where the roof goes when it's open . . . there was another fish head . . . and by now it was crawling with maggots.  And the company can't get the smell out . . . they've replaced the seats, and had it cleaned, but they can't seem to get rid of the smell."

"Ugh. How creepy!" She gave his hand a squeeze. It was soft and rubbery, and next to her hand, with its long graceful fingers, his looked like a child's. This seemed somewhat sad, the reverse of one of those children who age prematurely. "You're sure it wasn't someone who knew you?"

"Oh, God, I don't know," he said. "This weekend I'm just going to go out and buy another car." Then, changing the subject, he said brightly, "Hey! A friend of mine just gave me a picture he took of me--a portrait. He's a well-known fashion photographer.

"I'd love to see," she said.

"Yes?" He was cute when he smiled. His whole face cracked open, as if sealed under the layers of skin was a trapped baby allowed out only on special occasions. "The picture's kind of artistic, if you know what I mean--I'm naked." He pronounced both "artistic" and "naked" as if they came with quotation marks around them.

He opened a manila envelope and handed the photograph to her. In the picture he was seated nude on a stool, looking as if he might topple off, balanced only by his two skinny legs, spread far apart, feet clinging to the rungs. On his face was an expression of such supreme self-pride that Florence knew it could only be related to the appendage dangling between his legs. The bus was heavily air-conditioned. She reached for a sweater and put it on while she thought of what to say

"It's awfully hard to see in this light," she said. She was shocked, which she supposed was the point. He seemed so prissy, then to start flashing naked pictures of himself. Maybe it was a little test, to see how she would respond. She fumbled in her pocketbook for the remains of a Swiss dark chocolate nut bar she had been nibbling throughout the day. "Very nice!" The words came out slightly patronizingly, but he didn't seem to notice.

"I thought . . . he did a good job. My friend is very talented, as a photographer . . . I don't know what I'll do with it, though. Frame it, I guess, and hang it in the bedroom." He turned to her and whispered in a confidential voice, "You were right . . . I think it was this girl I was going out with who put the fish heads in my car. She knew I had just gotten a brand-new SAAB convertible."

"She must have been heartbroken," Florence said. "That you broke up with her--and that was all she could think of doing, to get revenge. But it wasn't funny! It wasn't very nice!"

"No . . ." said Charlie thoughtfully. "You know, I don't think I've ever really spent much time talking to you. This is great, that we're getting a chance to talk."

"I think so too," she said, giving his arm, padded beneath a robin's-egg-blue cotton sweater, a quick stroke. Though she appeared aloof, she was an oddly affectionate person--it was as if touch was the only way she could reassure herself that anyone else existed. The cool blond looks were blended in a boyishly jock physicality, more California than New York.

The bus held forty or fifty passengers and was completely full. The travelers, with their pinched, ferocious expressions and their too brightly glittering eyes, projected an aura of paranoia mixed with anxiety that permeated the bus. The hostess, a surly overweight young woman in her mid-twenties, stumped up and down the aisle delivering plastic bottles of mineral water and cups; she was probably a local from Long Island, hired for the season. She had the sour expression of a camp counselor devoting herself to a summer's worth of sadistic activities. And yet Florence always felt calmer heading east. The Western migration had not been the right journey for her mother, nor for her. All her life she had felt rootless. But her mother, after marrying, had gotten trapped, preserved in the amber sun of Southern California. She had always encouraged Florence to go back East, to marry rich, to return to spawn like a reintroduced salmon. And though her mother was no longer alive, she had managed, somehow, to imprint this on Florence--or perhaps it went deeper, imprinted on her strands of DNA like a celestial map carved on an ancient Aztec necklace.

"Would you like to do something?" Charlie said. "Tomorrow night, maybe?"

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First Chapter

Chapter One

She had an urge to tap his head with a spoon. It might wake him out of his trance. She could visualize the yellowish brains trickling over his glasses frames, such mild yolk -- and the other passengers on the jitney to the Hamptons would no doubt quickly whip croissants out of their weekend luggage and come to dip the corners in the soft stuff, hoping to taste so much money.

"Florence...!" Charlie said. "How are...you?"

She grabbed the seat next to his.

"I would normally...drive," he said.

"You usually drive to the Hamptons on the weekend?" Florence asked.

He nodded. "Only my car is in the garage."

"Being fixed," Florence said. Maybe having so much money had made him sluggish, softened his brain, like the last Emperor of China. He seemed to be cocooned in something. He seemed swaddled, a great distance away, though she was right beside him. The traffic chugged forward and died to a halt. The air was gray and thick with exhaust. Here there were no trees, only old factories and warehouses, like rusted shipwrecks jutting from cement. If there was already so much traffic, it would be midnight before the bus got to the Hamptons.

"Not...exactly," Charlie said. "You see, a few...weeks ago, I left it...parked in front of that new restaurant, Derek and Trevor's..."

"And somebody...hit it?" Whatever he had was catching. She was speaking slowly too.

"No...it's a convertible, you see, and the roof was closed. When I got into the car, I thought, Something stinks, and next to me, on the passenger's seat, some idiot had thrown a fish head."

"Why would they do such a thing?"

"I can only assume...because I parked in front of someone's yard, and I know there have been a lot of local complaints in Bridgehampton that Derek and Trevor opened a restaurant there. I threw the fish head onto the sidewalk. Well, it was so warm and sunny I opened the roof...and this is sort of...complicated...however...a few days later I noticed...there was a terrible smell...and I cleaned out the car...but the smell didn't go away. And after another week I tried to clean it again. I put the roof up...because I was going into the city and -- "

"Weird," Florence said. "And you really don't think it was some girl or something?"

He either didn't like her question or, having begun, couldn't stop before he had finished his story. "And when I put up the roof...I found wedged down in the back part where the roof goes when it's open...there was another fish head...and by now it was crawling with maggots. And the company can't get the smell out...they've replaced the seats, and had it cleaned, but they can't seem to get rid of the smell.

"Ugh. How creepy!" She gave his hand a squeeze. It was soft and rubbery, and next to her hand, with its long graceful fingers, his looked like a child's. This seemed somewhat sad, the reverse of one of those children who age prematurely. "You're sure it wasn't someone who knew you?"

"Oh, God, I don't know," he said. "This weekend I'm just going to go out and buy another car." Then, changing the subject, he said brightly, "Hey! A friend of mine just gave me a picture he took of me -- a portrait. He's a well-known fashion photographer."

"I'd love to see," she said.

"Yes?" He was cute when he smiled. His whole face cracked open, as if sealed under the layers of skin was a trapped baby allowed out only on special occasions. "The picture's kind of artistic, if you know what I mean -- I'm naked." He pronounced both "artistic" and "naked" as if they came with quotation marks around them.

He opened a manila envelope and handed the photograph to her. In the picture he was seated nude on a stool, looking as if he might topple off, balanced only by his two skinny legs, spread far apart, feet clinging to the rungs. On his face was an expression of such supreme self-pride that Florence knew it could only be related to the appendage dangling between his legs. The bus was heavily air-conditioned. She reached for a sweater and put it on while she thought of what to say.

"It's awfully hard to see in this light," she said. She was shocked, which she supposed was the point. He seemed so prissy, then to start flashing naked pictures of himself. Maybe it was a little test, to see how she would respond. She fumbled in her pocketbook for the remains of a Swiss dark chocolate nut bar she had been nibbling throughout the day. "Very nice!" The words came out slightly patronizingly, but he didn't seem to notice.

"I thought...he did a good job. My friend is very talented, as a photographer.... I don't know what I'll do with it, though. Frame it, I guess, and hang it in the bedroom." He turned to her and whispered in a confidential voice, "You were right...I think it was this girl I was going out with who put the fish heads in my car. She knew I had just gotten a brand-new Saab convertible."

"She must have been heartbroken," Florence said. "That you broke up with her -- and that was all she could think of doing, to get revenge. But it wasn't funny! It wasn't very nice!"

"No..." said Charlie thoughtfully. "You know, I don't think I've ever really spent much time talking to you. This is great, that we're getting a chance to talk."

"I think so too," she said, giving his arm, padded beneath a robin's-egg-blue cotton sweater, a quick stroke. Though she appeared aloof, she was an oddly affectionate person -- it was as if touch was the only way she could reassure herself that anyone else existed. The cool blond looks were blended in a boyishly jock physicality, more California than New York.

The bus held forty or fifty passengers and was completely full. The travelers, with their pinched, ferocious expressions and their too brightly glittering eyes, projected an aura of paranoia mixed with anxiety that permeated the bus. The hostess, a surly overweight young woman in her mid-twenties, stumped up and down the aisle delivering plastic bottles of mineral water and cups; she was probably a local from Long Island, hired for the season. She had the sour expression of a camp counselor devoting herself to a summer's worth of sadistic activities. And yet Florence always felt calmer heading east. The Western migration had not been the right journey for her mother, nor for her. All her life she had felt rootless. But her mother, after marrying, had gotten trapped, preserved in the amber sun of Southern California. She had always encouraged Florence to go back East, to marry rich, to return to spawn like a reintroduced salmon. And though her mother was no longer alive, she had managed, somehow, to imprint this on Florence -- or perhaps it went deeper, imprinted on her strands of DNA like a celestial map carved on an ancient Aztec necklace.

"Would you like to do something?" Charlie said. "Tomorrow night, maybe?"

Copyright © 1999 by Tama Janowitz

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Interviews & Essays

On Tuesday, July 20th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Tama Janowitz to discuss A CERTAIN AGE.

Moderator: Welcome to the Auditorium, Tama Janowitz. Thank you so much for joining us to chat about A CERTAIN AGE. We're all very excited to have you here. How are you this evening?

Tama Janowitz: Fine, thank you.


Penelope from Oak Park, IL: A CERTAIN AGE seems to be a rather wry take on 19th-century novels about women needing to marry well. Do you see A CERTAIN AGE as a book of modern manners?

Tama Janowitz: Absolutely. I feel that I am exploring what has become of women in the last 100 years since Edith Wharton was writing about her world in Manhattan, and that 100 years ago, if you hadn't married by the age of 22, you were considered a spinster, and here in New York, women started getting pretty desperate around 32. So we are maturing a bit more slowly now.


Soozan from New York City: Your book seems to give a '90s affirmation of pressures to marry that many would have thought were overcome in the '70s. Do you think these pressures of "a certain age" are alive and well?

Tama Janowitz: Again, yes, and as a product of the feminist movement, I feel quite horrified, really, that ultimately it appears so little has changed for a woman, and that while perhaps the glass ceiling has been raised, women are still expecting status and confirmation based on whom they have married, not advocating it.


Genevieve from New York, NY: Do you think there are fewer available men in New York City than there are women, or is that just what it feels like?

Tama Janowitz: I think, to begin with, New York attracts the most extreme types. Whether they're desperate to make it on Wall Street, or become a Broadway star, or succeed in publishing, or have come from the Dominican Republic desperately poor and are anxious to send money home, it's no different than anywhere else, but it's more intensified. It's a tiny, tiny, crowded island. If you're a gay man from a small town and feel disenfranchised, the place to come is New York City. If you're a beautiful woman and don't necessarily know what you want to do, but you know you don't want to continue in a small town doing nothing apart from a position that doesn't interest you, or marriage and motherhood, you come here thinking, "I'll find something here." The frightening part is men come here as men do everywhere, thinking of their career first, what will interest them as an occupation for their life, and as a correlation, hoping the right person will come along as a companion. Women still think that they should find the right companion first, and then figure out what it is they want to do, so again, I'm not advocating this, I'm simply stating what I see around me, and again, generalizing.


R. Newman from Jersey City, NJ: Some people have termed your writing [as that of] a "city cynic." What do you think of this title? Do you think it's possible to write about society in New York City without being cynical?

Tama Janowitz: I don't think it's possible to write about society anywhere without being cynical.


J. B. from New York: What do you think has changed the most about social mores in New York since you wrote SLAVES OF NEW YORK?

Tama Janowitz: I don't think what society considers moral or immoral behavior has changed in that brief a time. Certainly New York has changed. It was possible in the early '80s to come here and find a cheap apartment, work in perhaps a copy shop, and expect to make enough to survive and be able to go out at night and do performances in a club or be involved somehow in the art world. I think now that has disappeared. It's really only a city for the very rich. The East Village of tenements, which grandparents and great-grandparents came to 100 years ago and worked as apple vendors, has disappeared, and their grandchildren and great-grandchildren are now living in their tenements, which have been fixed up to an extent and rent for $2000 a month.

What has changed in 100 years is that what society valued is gone. If you look back at, say, TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES by Thomas Hardy, Tess was "kicked out" of society for being pregnant out of wedlock, or in AGE OF INNOCENCE by Edith Wharton, the heroine was a divorcee, or at least separated from her European husband -- therefore a person to be ostracized by society. Now there is very little left in the way of what society would consider to be amoral or criminal or simply not acceptable. For one thing, there is no longer such a fixed society as the "400" that Edith Wharton wrote about. The richest person in New York will have an artist to dinner to show that he is aware of arts and culture. For another, those "laws" have changed.

Ingrid Bergman was kicked out of the country 50 years ago for being pregnant out of wedlock. Ultimately, whether you're pregnant one way or the other is not a moral value, it's a value of society. So in many ways, the combination of what society considers to be okay behavior, and society itself, has changed so drastically that we have neither of those left, which, as an author, is very discouraging, because the most interesting books to me are about why someone came to the place in their life that they did because of their own nature. And a great many books now are simply about external events. A woman's son runs someone over; how does she deal with that? A woman's child disappears; how does she deal with that? These are external events rather than a character defect or flaw. I was always jealous of writers who were writing in an age or era when rules and regulations were right there in front of them, and this book to me was an exploration of the leftovers.


Jay Barmann from Manhattan: Authors often speak of their characters as if they had lives of their own, free of their creator's control. After creating the character of Florence Collins and delving into the novel, what most frustrated you about her? What most impressed you?

Tama Janowitz: When I was writing the book, I was simultaneously her and apart from her, feeling very contemptuous. But for me, as soon as the book is finished, it is gone, so sometimes people ask me [whether there will] be a sequel, or what happened afterwards, and I think, "Are you crazy? It was just a book! I don't know."


Elke from barnesandnoble.com: What is the worst job you've ever had, and why was it so bad?

Tama Janowitz: I always thought that I could be a waitress, and I thought of 1984, where each person has to experience their worst fantasy if they misbehave. For me it was being a waitress, and I knew I was not good enough, and I wasn't.


Oren from Bennington, VT: How much of A CERTAIN AGE is based upon experiences in your own life and social circles?

Tama Janowitz: All of my single girlfriends keep saying I was writing about them. But it wasn't about them. It was about living in a place where people are desperate, and where anybody can somehow justify the worst thing that they've done.


Iris from Atlanta, GA: Since SLAVES OF NEW YORK, you have been cited as a voice of your generation. What do you think of this claim? Is it a dubious honor? What about your writing do you think drew this claim?

Tama Janowitz: You know, I just get up in the morning and try to write, and I have a hard time believing that anybody would be reading what I've done so privately. But it's very nice, and they have.


Jane from Washington, DC: Was this book at all a satirization of Jane Austen? Do you admire her work?

Tama Janowitz: I love Jane Austen, but in Jane Austen, the heroine was a decent sort, and in my book, ultimately, she's not exactly decent, though not entirely unlikable. But pretty close. It was more to do with my attempt at exploring Edith Wharton.


Jan from San Diego, CA: Do you think most of your readers are New Yorkers or exiled New Yorkers? Do you think your books appeal to non-New York City readers?

Tama Janowitz: Oh, I think they appeal to people outside New York as much as inside, because you don't have to want to live someplace or live there to enjoy reading about what it's like to live there. Some of my favorite books have been set on Devil's Island, or in prison, or the Siberian gulag -- do I want to go there? Heck no! Is it interesting to read what it's like to be there? Yes!


Millie from Syracuse, NY: Who are some of your favorite authors? Which books are you reading this summer?

Tama Janowitz: Well, I've been traveling a lot, and it's always difficult to read anything very serious when you're in transit. I like to read books where someone is worse off than you are, because if you can read about somebody on Devil's Island while you're sitting in a crummy seat on an airplane, and you look up and think, "Gosh, this is great, I have some delicious airplane food, and I'm not being attacked by mosquitoes," you think of yourself as very fortunate.


Gina from Hoboken, NJ: How is your daughter, Willow? I read about your adoption process in one of the women's magazines a few years ago. What sort of new challenges have you faced as the white mother of a Chinese daughter as she's gotten older?

Tama Janowitz: I'm sure there would be some challenges someplace, but in New York, every third Caucasian is wheeling a Chinese baby, or a Korean baby, or a mixed-race baby. Almost four is a really great age for a kid for a parent, although she has her own ideas about reality. For example, yesterday she kept talking about a blind daughter, and the mother was also blind, but it turned out she meant blonde. The sort of nutty things a three-year-old says are just amazing, because everything to them is so new, and she is at that age where nothing happens without her saying Why? Why? Why? And you think to yourself, Gosh, well, that's a good question, and by the time you've come up with a good answer, she's lost interest and moved on to a different subject.


Edgar Lebron from New York: Did the ability to write come to you naturally? Or was it that you just felt some sort of inclination to this particular art and decide to pursue the profession? Or was it something else?

Tama Janowitz: Something else.


Scott from Georgia: Where do you come up with the titles for your books?

Tama Janowitz: Sometimes they come to me before I've written them, and that's always a bad sign. Sometimes when I'm three-quarters through -- that's a good sign. Sometimes, somebody else tells me the title, after the fact.


Phoebe Pinkerton from Portland, OR: I love the jacket of your latest book! How much say did you have in its design? And how, do you think, does it apply to the story?

Tama Janowitz: I have no say at all. The ironic twist is, inevitably, publishers will always ask me what I think of the jacket, and if I say, "Gosh, I don't like it," they say, "Oh, too bad." So I'm not exactly sure why they would bother to ask me! In the case of this book, they have a marketing department and an art department who came up with it, and apparently, it was very much loved by the people at Doubleday. In my case, I said, "Why do I have to have a drain on the cover of my book?" and they said, "Oh, don't think of it like that." But there was no other way I could think of it, because it was a drain!


Jay from New York City: In A CERTAIN AGE you describe a set of complex pressures and social maneuverings from the point of view of a single woman in an elite segment of contemporary New York society. How much of what you describe do you think is specific to New York?

Tama Janowitz: First of all, I'm very impressed that Jay has read this book, which isn't really even out yet. Well, I mean it's specific to New York, and yet I don't feel that things are that different elsewhere. I mean, elsewhere women wouldn't be so obsessed with Prada shoes, but nevertheless they might be obsessed with Timberland, or how many miles they could hike with a pack on their back through snow. Ultimately, it all comes down to women's competitiveness with other women in a way that I don't find healthy.


A Certain Jay from New York City: You dedicate A CERTAIN AGE to the filmmakers and screenwriter who were responsible for making SLAVES OF NEW YORK into a film (James Ivory, Ismail Merchant, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala). Are you all close friends? Were you happy with the adaptation, and do you think they may want to adapt another of your books?

Tama Janowitz: I was happy with the adaptation. It was really a great experience for me. Merchant-Ivory had been making films at that point outside of Hollywood for 25 years, and Ruth Jhabvala, who is a very highly esteemed fiction writer in her own right, has been responsible for writing many of their works. Because of that, not only was the writer not considered to be a lowly, replaceable entity, as with many Hollywood films, but here were two men accustomed to working with a woman, and considering the woman to be a part of the team. So working with them on this project was a real joy, and after writing novels in solitary seclusion, it felt wonderful to be part of a collaborative experience. However, the movie was killed by critics so quickly, it never had a chance, and for about a month, I traveled around the country with Jim and Ismail doing promotion of the movie, and we would arrive in a city, and do media, and wake up in the morning and see the terrible reviews, and travel to the next city like traveling snake-oil salesmen. But I loved the movie, although I do remember one of my favorite stops was in Washington, DC, doing a news program where Evel Knievel and his son Robby were also on the program, and they looked at us in absolute horror, and Evel Knievel muttered to his son, "Those are the weirdest people I've ever seen."


Elke from barnesandnoble.com: If you weren't a writer, what could you see yourself doing for a living?

Tama Janowitz: I would really have loved to have been a doctor doing research in epidemics. I love epidemics. I would have liked to travel places where there was an outbreak of some strange virus, and like a detective, try to figure out what was causing it. To me, there is nothing like a disease.


Moderator: Thank you so much for joining us tonight, Tama Janowitz. You've been a terrific guest, and we wish you all the best of luck with A CERTAIN AGE. Before you go, do you have any closing comments for your online audience?

Tama Janowitz: Only that so far, many people have said to me the best thing you could ever say to an author, which is that they were unable to put down the book. And ultimately, that's what anybody would dream about.


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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 6, 2002

    Has some merit

    I bought this book in 1999 shortly after it's release. It was so painfully slow that I did not pick it up again until a few months ago. It still took 2 months for me to read. I must say however that this is an excellent account of life in Manhattan, New York and what it is really going on in the 30 something crowd. Many of Florence's image concerns,salary concerns, and social standing concerns are very real. While she certainly should not be pittied her experiences could serve as a barometer of what anyone who is not swift,outtspoken and cautious will face when trying to succeed in the Big Apple.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 3, 2002

    Very Disappointed...

    I was excited to take this book home since I really enjoy Tama Janowitz' other books. I found it very hard to get into, I am usually a quick reader but it took me almost two weeks to get through the first half of the book. I honestly couldn't finish it because it lacked content. It sounded like a good read, I wish it was.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 18, 2001

    Edge of your seat

    A Certain Age keeps you on the edge of your seat. You want know what happens.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 12, 2000

    The Ending Comes Too Late

    The character was well-developed, reminiscent of Candace Bushnell's '4 Blondes.' I kept waiting for something to happen. The book went nowhere with the believable Florence. I don't think that she should have had some wonderful epiphany and turned into a martyr, I just think that after reading a few hundred pages, something more substantial should have happened and definitely sooner.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 31, 2000

    I Liked It

    Despite the fact that I hope I am nothing like Florence Collins, I really enjoyed the book and actually felt sorry for her. Even though she brought most of her troubles down on herself, it is almost easy to imagine her nightmare life happening to yourself. Although I didn't love the way it ended, I thought she might actually learn a lesson from her troubles and somehow redeem herself, I still really enjoyed the book and found it a fast and interesting read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 10, 2000

    Wharton's House of Mirth done much, much worse

    Tama Janowitz has a reputation for writing witty novels. Sadly, I didn't find this to be one of them. From the very first pages of the novel, Janowitz's debt to Edith Wharton is clear, but she doesn't seem to say much that is new, nor is her main character, Florence, particularly sympathetic. I couldn't bear to read the entire novel. Read the original; it's much better.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 13, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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