A Collection of Beauties at the Height of Their Popularity

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"The author of How to Make an American Quilt transports us to San Francisco in the early 1980s, a magical, fog-shrouded city suffused - as are many of its denizens - with possibility and restless energy. In A Collection of Beauties at the Height of Their Popularity, Whitney Otto's characters congregate night after night at a North Beach bar called the Youki Singe Tea Room, their lives conjoined by the bonds of friendship and shared experience. At the Youki Singe, the stories of these young people's lives - their parties, their eccentric living
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Overview

"The author of How to Make an American Quilt transports us to San Francisco in the early 1980s, a magical, fog-shrouded city suffused - as are many of its denizens - with possibility and restless energy. In A Collection of Beauties at the Height of Their Popularity, Whitney Otto's characters congregate night after night at a North Beach bar called the Youki Singe Tea Room, their lives conjoined by the bonds of friendship and shared experience. At the Youki Singe, the stories of these young people's lives - their parties, their eccentric living situations, their passions for books and art and one another - are recorded in one patron's "pillow book," her version of the intimate journals of the courtesans of Edo Japan. Meanwhile, though, the careless joys of the drifting life are giving way to a desire to find something more substantial, a need to belong to something or someone." "The title A Collection of Beauties at the Height of Their Popularity is taken from a series of woodblock prints by the eighteenth-century artist Utamaro, a master at depicting Japan's legendary Floating World, where, it is said, the patrons of the great pleasure quarters - and their escorts - devoted themselves to the pursuit of music, sex, food, poetry, theater, and fashion. Now, two hundred years later and an ocean away, the young men and women of Otto's San Francisco find themselves in their own version of a Floating World." Illustrated with more than two dozen beautifully reproduced woodblock prints, A Collection of Beauties at the Height of Their Popularity conjures an atmosphere both dreamy and contemporary. Whitney Otto engages the senses as well as the mind while exploring the intricacies, the trouble, and the rapture of human connection.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The author of How to Make an American Quilt craftily invokes a new set of artistic metaphors. Utilizing a series of 17th-century Japanese woodcuts as a symbolic backdrop, Otto presents vignettes of San Francisco residents and visitors, all frequenters of a North Beach tea house. As usual, Otto’s tea readings are always exquisite, sometimes melancholy, and often erotic.
From The Critics
The title of this insubstantial novel from the author of How to Make an American Quilt was taken from an eighteenth- century Japanese wood-block print of four geishas who lived in Edo during a period known as the Floating World, a time of national isolation, peace and courtesans. This book presents a series of vignettes about young, fashionably impoverished characters who live in their own modern world of transitory pleasure—San Francisco in the early 1980s. In an attempt to give her novel shape and substance, Otto titles and illustrates each chapter with a different wood-block print from the Floating World. She informs the reader at the beginning, "The beauty of a book is that if you are patient and thoughtful, it will come to you." The book, which uses an ancient Japanese lady-in-waiting's diary as its model, has a loosely constructed, inconclusive narration that relies heavily on characterization rather than on dramatic development of plot. Unfortunately, these characters are so thin and weightless that they float out of the mind as soon as their stories end.
—Susan Tekulve
Publishers Weekly
The bestselling author of How to Make an American Quilt experiments again with a patchwork narrative, building an elaborate, piquant story of the loves and lives of a group of young 1980s San Franciscans around a series of 18th-century woodblock prints that depict the women of Edo, Japan. Each of the 12 chapters begins with the reproduction and explication of a print; all the prints date from a long period of peace in Japan, stretching roughly from 1615 to 1868. Out of this peace came a flowering of the arts of pleasure, and it is the pursuit of pleasure that Otto documents in 20th-century San Francisco as well. Against the backdrop of a North Beach fringe bar, the Youki Singe Tea Room, dozens of Otto's expertly tailored characters drink, adjust and readjust their senses of loneliness, acceptance and desire in a series of short vignettes. Among them are Roy, "a purveyor of `artificial paradises,' who is neither sinister nor extraordinary in any way"; Jelly, who travels with a coterie of beautiful women and adoring men; Pirouz, Iranian born and raised in France, who falls in love with San Francisco and marries Jelly to secure a green card; and Raphaella, singer with a golden voice, who usurps Pirouz's attentions. Many more characters come and go in Otto's merry-go-round of parties, connections, break-ups, art and glittering San Francisco skyscapes. Stylish almost to a fault, the novel makes a fetish of beauty and unusual art objects, but it is the intricate web of human connections that gives it deeper appeal. 10-city author tour. (Mar. 12) Forecast: The eclectic format of Otto's latest will be familiar to fans of How to Make an American Quilt, though the young, hip, multicultural protagonists will appeal more to those who enjoyed The Passion Dream Book, her most recent novel. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
For the current group of directionless youth who hang out at the Youki Singe Tea Room in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood, there is little to worry about beyond being young and beautiful or so they think. Otto's fourth book unfolds like a Japanese fan, each crease revealing a new secret and adding more parts of the painting. To enrich the overarching story of this collection of beauties, she fluidly combines art, literature, and history to build a world where creativity reigns over reality. Once again enjoying the unique challenges of a concept novel, Otto chooses to build her tale around the 18th-century wood blocks of Edo, Japan. Each chapter opens with a picture of one of the blocks, which Otto describes as an art and historical object. Those explanations match events in the chapters that follow, uncovering a more complicated web of information about the characters. This novel is similar to How To Make An American Quilt in its use of a main theme, as well as its excellent characterization; each member of the clique is fully realized yet somewhat elusive to the reader, making the threads of the story that much more realistic. In this way, A Collection of Beauties makes the reader feel as if she, too, could go to the Youki Singe Tea Room to find her friends waiting in a back corner table with a drink, ready to discuss what's next. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/1/01.] Rachel Collins, "Library Journal" Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
As elaborate as origami, this elegant fourth from Otto (The Passion Dream Book, 1997, etc.) follows the lives of San Franciscans in search of love and pleasure. Filled with unusual elements-reproductions of Japanese wood blocks, photos of Duchamp's work, an Elizabeth Bishop poem, a brief history of Vermeer's women and their letters-the story could have fallen victim to its collection of esoterica but instead is elevated to a sort of quiet chant or meditation on people living the accidental life. In a book thematically inspired by 17th-century Japan's "floating worlds" (pleasure zones focusing on the world's momentary, usually sensual, delights), the large cast of characters are floating in life, living for the moment in the most transient of cities. They all intersect at the Youki Singe Tea Room, where Elodie keeps a pillow book (a Japanese journal of observations) on the developments of their lives, with the rundown teahouse serving as host to their unfolding stories. Charming Ray, a drug dealer by trade, and his girlfriend Gracie (and their friends, who eventually show up in chapters of their own) party-hop, ending up in equal parts stoned, disillusioned, and in awe under the massive columns of the Palace of Fine Arts. Nash the artist falls in love with Suzanne, first attracted and then repelled by the intentional emptiness (a cardboard box serves as her dining table) of her domestic life. The beautiful and mysterious Jelly roams aimlessly through the novel until she falls in love with an Iranian boy (after a brief tryst she sends him pictures of herself in places all over San Francisco) who in turn falls in love with a transvestite. The conclusion returns to Elodie, who whenhouse-sitting for strangers (people tied to her in ways she doesn't know) finds an adulterous love letter in the homeowner's overcoat, an appropriate end to this collection of vignettes celebrating the ephemeral. Beautifully conceived and executed: a small gem. Author tour
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375505454
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/5/2002
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.14 (w) x 7.40 (h) x 1.07 (d)

Meet the Author

Whitney Otto is the bestselling author of How to Make an American Quilt (which was made into a feature film), Now You See Her, and The Passion Dream Book. A native of California, she lives with her husband and son in Portland, Oregon.
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Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

a story of love on the veranda

SUZUKI HARUNOBU

(1767-1768)


This is a story of entangled love. The figure on the right is a young man, and the woman whispering in his ear is the go-between or emissary for her mistress, who is as young as the man. The mistress watches from a crack in the screen behind the couple on the veranda. However, it is the way in which the whispering woman wraps her hand around the wrist of the young man (the young man who does not draw away) that suggests she may want him for herself.

That's the thing about the youki singe: you can almost always count on running into someone you know. Why just this evening Theo Adagio and Gracie Maruyama literally bumped into Elodie Parker as she was leaving the café.

They have known Elodie for about three years, but their own friendship goes all the way back to kindergarten. It then flourished for the rest of elementary school, weathered time spent in separate middle schools, became revitalized when they found themselves attending the same high school. They went on to different universities on opposite ends of California, from which they graduated, and discovered they each longed to live in San Francisco. Currently they are happily settled as roommates in a moderately run-down, generously proportioned flat in the avenues.

So many nights begin this way, with Theo and Gracie walking quickly up Columbus Avenue after another uninspired day at their Financial District office jobs. While it is not their intention to stay at the Youki Singe for dinner, chances are they will end up dining on doughy gyoza and bland onion soup as the evening quietly slipsaway unnoticed. The limited menu also offers a truly terrible Welsh rarebit.

"Why do you even sell it?" Theo once asked the bartender.

"Because the owner read that it was a favorite of American expatriates in Paris who used to dine at La Coupole in the twenties."

"Can it still be considered an expatriate dish if it is served here? I mean, we're all pretty well patriated here. Unfortunately." Theo suffers from daydreams of a life in foreign places.

The bartender cleared away some glasses. "No one ever orders it anyway. Would you?"

Of course not. No one would. Not with all the aerobic hours required to counter a single serving of the stuff. Such is the romance of Paris.

It was never the food that brought customers into the Youki Singe Tea Room: it was the alcohol and the permissive atmosphere and the way it did not try to be anything other than what it was. It was the expensive studios that were too small for the social life the Youki Singe offered; it was the absence of family. It was the promise that each evening held. Though tonight they are here to see a German woman named Margot Mueller.

"You know, grace, I don't really need to be here. I barely know Margot. We don't mean anything to each other," complains Theo. "She's really Roy's friend."

Roy and Gracie have known each other since college; Theo is acquainted with him by way of Gracie. Margot is Roy's latest flame.

"That is why I appreciate your company," says Gracie, firmly taking hold of Theo's elbow as if she might bolt before they arrive at Margot's table.

Margot Mueller's clothes are a tragic combination of current fashion favoring denim and lace. Her slightly dirty hair is tied back with what appears to be a kneesock. One hand grips her black-rimmed eyeglasses while the other holds a wet clump that used to be a cocktail napkin. But more striking than Margot's clothes is her facial expression: brokenhearted, baffled, lost. Her face makes Theo want to pull back.

"I hate this," whispers Theo. "I'm the wrong person for this."

"Sweetie," says Gracie when they arrive at Margot's table; Margot already on her unsteady feet and collapsing, crying into Gracie's arms.

"Iknow he's not my life or anything like that," Margot Mueller says in a slight German accent that is altogether sexier than the girl herself.

Margot blows her nose into the useless napkin. Without interrupting her, Gracie slides the napkin from under her own glass, deftly exchanging it for the sopping mess in Margot's fist. "But he felt like my life. You know? He felt-he feels so-fundamental," she says.

"What exactly did he say?" asks Gracie. Her hand upon Margot's shoulder rests as lightly as a breath.

Margot ignores her question. "He's not worth this-" She throws her arms wide as if to gather up the growing crowd in the Youki Singe in her empty embrace. "He's really not. My God, it is so embarrassing. To behave this way publicly." Margot turns to Theo, demanding, "How could I stay in that apartment, our apartment? How? Oh, let them stare." She fumbles for her bag on the floor, extracts a pack of cigarettes with matches tucked into the cellophane, lights the cigarette.

Of course, no one is watching. This is such an old, old story that even if the people in the Youki Singe knew the particulars of Margot's misery, it wouldn't cause so much as a brief interruption in their own thoughts or conversations.

Theo thinks how usual all this is: the defeated posture, the unfocused, red eyes, the preoccupation, the dazed aspect, the general brokenness. The shift of love. The failure of love. Then watches Gracie in all her kindness, thinking, She is so good. Theo's thoughts work themselves to Roy. Then Theo is again considering Margot, surprised to find that what she does feel is guilt.

"Everyone's been through this, right?" asks Margot. "Right, Theo?"

It was long ago when Theo won the heart of Gracie's first boyfriend. They were fourteen; Gracie was crazy about him; Theo didn't consider him one way or the other. Then, without warning, he withdrew his affections from Gracie, leaving her bereft.

Theo, with the conviction of a crusader fighting for the meek, confronted the boy. Why, she demanded, did he walk away from Gracie? What did he want anyway?

"Well," he said thoughtfully, "I like someone with cool clothes."

His answer was so unexpected that it immediately disarmed Theo. As his unabashed, sincere shallowness brought her up short, curiosity overtook righteousness.

"Oh," she said, "like who, for example?"

"Debbie Dean dresses cool."

Debbie Dean's indisputable homeliness drove her mother to spend irrational sums on her daughter's wardrobe in an effort to correct nature. Because her mother had such disregard toward reality, not to mention a predilection for snobbery, and Debbie's personality left much to be desired as well, Theo had supposed this was all evident to the boy.

"And she can't be taller than me," he continued.

"Anything else?" asked Theo.

"I like someone who makes me laugh," he said. "Someone like you."

Theo could feel her face warm to the unexpected thrill of attention. "I make you laugh?"

"I like you."

"But you can't," she said. "You really can't."

It had not been easy to tell Gracie that the boy now liked Theo and that Theo (she was sorry) liked him back. Theo could barely tolerate the sound of her own words as they came hurriedly from her mouth. Still she was powerless to reverse these events. Gracie tried solemnly to follow what Theo was telling her, could see her trying to sort out loyalties. Theo unable to explain that her inexperience was so complete she could knowingly do a wrong thing because the magnetism of this boy-or maybe it was the compelling quality of the

situation-overrode everything.

This boy, Theo wanted to say, held out a sense of possibility to her. Surely you can see that, said Theo, you of all people.

And, much later in her life, when Theo thought back on this conversation, she would add what she could not then articulate: You of all people, who fell as easily for him as I am falling now . . .

Margot is again curled up in Gracie's arms. Gracie soothing there there as she leans her cheek into Margot's undone hair. Theo knows that she would not be as comforting, as natural, as warm. No closeness. No intimacy. There was a time when Theo had been jilted by someone she thought she loved and ended up following Gracie around for three days. When Gracie went to work, Theo called in sick and then went to Gracie's office. If Gracie went to the dry cleaner's, so did Theo. They spoke very little during this episode; the nearness of Gracie was comfort enough. Even at night, Theo crawled into bed with her.

Theo is wondering what it is like to be Gracie. Now, though she is not the brokenhearted one, Theo still responds to Gracie's whispered promise that everything will be all right. It will be all right.

"Last month," says margot, "for my birthday, Roy decorated the entire apartment with blue balloons. Everywhere. On the ceiling and blinds and our coats hung on their hooks. Even the dog had one attached to her collar. The cat was obviously less willing to participate since her collar balloon was a ripped piece of rubber hanging from her neck. And he made a blue dinner and a blue cake. He played blues on the stereo."

"What would constitute a blue dinner?" asks Theo.

Margot continues, "And I thought, What a funny guy. Does he plan this stuff or does it occur to him as he walks home from work?"

"Does it matter?" asks Gracie, pushing back strands of Margot's hair that have worked themselves free of the sock. She tucks them behind Margot's ears, which are a little large and jutting.

"It matters," says Margot emphatically, "because it changes everything if he planned it. It tells me who he does it for."

"Who else would he be doing it for if he's not doing it for you?" asks Theo, confused.

"Himself," says Margot.

Roy, it turned out, was seeing someone else. That is what Margot says the following night at a Chinese restaurant so cavernous that polite conversation was close to impossible.

"Is that what he told you?" asks Gracie.

"It is what I know," says Margot, playing with her food using a pair of chopsticks until she tosses them on her plate, shoving everything away.

Ah, the Heartbreak Diet, observes Theo. It leaves you looking lousy in every respect except for your weight. And you feel as awful as you look; if you look starved, you also look starved for affection.

"Is this intuition or something more concrete than that?" asks Theo. This conversation is rendering her a little breathless.

"It's definite."

"Are you sure?" asks Theo.

"Yes. I'm awfully, horribly fucking sure." Margot's hand goes to her mouth. "I don't know what to do," she says softly.

"You still keep your studio, don't you?" asks Theo slowly. "You have another place."

"Oh, what difference does that make?" cries Margot.

"Listen," says Gracie, "I've known Roy practically half my life. Things will work out. He's just confused right now. That's all. It happens, you know."

"Have you talked to him? What did he say?"

"Actually, I didn't talk to him," says Gracie. "He called the other night and Theo"-Gracie gestures toward her-"he was talking to you, wasn't he?"

Margot turns to Theo.

"He really didn't say much of anything," mumbles Theo, but it doesn't seem to matter because Gracie continues, "No, look, I'm simply saying that this sounds exactly like Roy. I'm sure he'll come around. He gets restless and distracted, that's all." Gracie scratches her chair back to face Margot, pulling Margot's chair toward her. Margot's expression is unsettled, as if turning over what Gracie has just said.

Theo can imagine Margot's thoughts:

1. Is Gracie saying that this is how Roy treats his girls, thereby placing her as one of many, indistinguishable from all who came before?

2. Does he confide in Gracie (or is it Theo) things he will not say to her, his beloved?

3. Considering the first two things, what does it mean to be Roy's beloved?

Now Gracie is saying, "I think the three of us-you, me, and Theo-should embark on a little camping trip. Why not? We can go up around Mendocino, say. Or wherever we like. The gold country? We can play it by ear."

Margot is listening without listening. Theo cuts in. "Gracie, I'm not sure I can-"

Gracie cuts her off. "Wherever we want. You can get a clear head about all of this and, maybe, by the time we return, Roy will have come to his senses." Gracie's hands hold Margot's. "You might not even want him anymore."

"Why don't you two go wi--" Theo says, with Gracie silencing her with a glance.

"What do you think? Maybe things will be different."

Margot laughs ruefully. "Oh, like Roy will remember that he loves me?"

Gracie laughs. "Yeah. Something like that."

"Why do you involve me?" asks Theo of Gracie as they walk toward the bus stop, illuminated by the summer moonlight.

Somehow, theo inherits margot. She sits beside her at the movies (Margot's love-scattered mind is incapable of following any plot, and she often asks Theo to explain it, irritating Theo and everyone around them); sharing meals that only Theo eats; dancing in clubs (though neither is a particularly good dancer). All the while Theo is spinning endless theories regarding Roy's behavior (though Margot still sees him every morning across the kitchen table).

Gracie, busy planning their camping trip, presses Theo to keep company with Margot, saying, You be my emissary.

The summer day is so rare in its beauty that when Theo climbs the inside stairs of the second-floor flat she shares with Gracie, she does not think to call out to her. Who could remain inside on such a day? When Theo reaches the landing, she notices a man's jacket casually tossed over the banister. In the kitchen are two empty cups and a tea bag, wet and crushed near one of the saucers. Cigarette butts mingle with the roachlike remains of a pair of joints. And still Theo does not call out Gracie's name.

Copyright 2002 by Whitney Otto
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Reading Group Guide

In a novel about drifting and reckless youth looking for a more permanent form of happiness, Whitney Otto transports us to San Francisco, a magical, fog-shrouded city suffused with possibility and restless energy. Her characters congregate night after night at a North Beach bar called the Youki Singe Tea Room, their lives conjoined by bonds of friendship and shared experience, and by the poignant realization that true ecstasy may be found only in surrendering oneself to someone or something else. A Collection of Beauties at the Height of Their Popularity explores the intricacies, the pain, and the rapture of human connection.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 2 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 30, 2002

    beautiful

    This book makes a complete circle. All of the lives are intertwined-which could make it boringly predictible-but I did not find it boring. I loved the book and hated for it to end. I wonder if it will be a movie--though a movie could not do it justice!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 9, 2002

    A truely enjoyable book

    The book engrossed me almost from the start. You move from one person's experiences to another person's, within the same loose social group, interupted by beautiful prints. I felt a little like a voyeur into people's private thoughts maybe, that is what made it so interesting.

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