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All is Vanity

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Overview

At once darkly comedic and moving, this witty exploration of female friendship, envy, and misguided ambition by the author of the number-one bestseller Drowning Ruth, deliciously satirizes the desire to shine in the world.

In All is Vanity, Margaret and Letty, best friends since childhood and now living on opposite coasts, reach their mid-thirties and begin to chafe at their sense that they are not where they ought to be in life. Margaret, ...

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All is Vanity

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Overview

At once darkly comedic and moving, this witty exploration of female friendship, envy, and misguided ambition by the author of the number-one bestseller Drowning Ruth, deliciously satirizes the desire to shine in the world.

In All is Vanity, Margaret and Letty, best friends since childhood and now living on opposite coasts, reach their mid-thirties and begin to chafe at their sense that they are not where they ought to be in life. Margaret, driven and overconfident, decides the best way to rectify this is to quit her job and whip out a literary tour de force. Frustrated almost immediately and humiliated at every turn, Margaret turns to Letty for support. But as Letty, a stay-at-home mother of four, begins to feel pressured to make a good showing in the upper-middle-class Los Angeles society into which her husband’s new job has thrust her, Margaret sees a plot unfolding that’s better than anything she could make up. Desperate to finish her book and against her better nature, she pushes Letty to take greater and greater risks, and secretly steals her friend’s stories as fast as she can live them. Hungry for the world’s regard, Margaret rashly sacrifices one of the things most precious to her, until the novel’s suspenseful conclusion shows her the terrible consequences of her betrayal.

Widely celebrated for her debut novel, Drowning Ruth, Christina Schwarz once again proves herself to be a writer of remarkable depth and

range. Like Drowning Ruth, All is Vanity probes into the mysteries of the human heart and uncovers the passions that drive ordinary

people to break the rules in pursuit of their own desires.

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Editorial Reviews

Beth Kephart
Despite the recent, entirely deserved success of Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys, Ian McEwan's Atonement and Carol Shields' Unless, novelists writing about the writing of novels have always been suspect. There's the "who cares?" factor, which is always difficult to transcend. There's the airlessness of such a construct. There's the danger that, in focusing on process, one neglects to tell a story.

In her aptly titled second novel, All Is Vanity, Christina Schwarz, the bestselling author of 2000's Drowning Ruth (an Oprah's Book Club pick), swims fearlessly out into such choppy waters and never returns to dry land. Her anti-heroine is Margaret, a formerly precocious child who realizes, at the age of thirty-three, that she has done nothing of meaning or import with her life. Yes, she is married to a thoughtful and mostly supportive man. Yes, she has had, until recently, a career as an English teacher at a private school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. But what she really wants is to be Somebody, and the quickest route to celebrity is linked, in her less-than-perspicacious mind, to novel writing. "Writing a novel, I believed, would be a way to achieve glittering success without the painful and humiliating apprenticeship other well-regarded careers required, and which I ought to have undergone in my twenties. Too late for that, I thought. I needed quick results."

Margaret hasn't the first clue, of course, about how to get started. She writes a first sentence—"Elaine pushed her fingers through her long, dark hair in the pearly dawn"—discerns its many flaws and stalls. She gives herself exercises, makes lists, buys a baby-naming book, color codes charactertraits, makes elementary notes on plot, paints the apartment, enrolls in a class, exasperates her husband, spends money she does not have and, most critically, engages in a long conversation with her best lifelong friend, Letty.

If Margaret was always the dominant one, Letty was forever the foil. They grew up as each other's yin and yang, and as adults they are no different. Whereas Margaret's obsession, in the pages to come, will revolve exclusively around the writing and nonwriting of the ersatz novel, Letty's obsession will concern her desperate efforts to enter the high society she and her husband can hardly afford.

These, then, are the two strands that Schwarz pulls together; this is the sole province of this book. The more Margaret's fiction stagnates, the more Letty stirs up real-life adventures, until it is Letty's e-mails that begin to provide the stuff of actual interest. What happens next is heavily foreshadowed: Margaret does not just begin to appropriate Letty's stories (which increasingly get told in page after page of punctuation-perfect, dialogue-rich, never-an-instant-of-shorthand e-mails; the sort of e-mails that rarely get sent in the real world); she encourages (through acts of both complicit silence and ghastly advice) Letty's Gatsby-style downfall. It's all grist for the writing mill, and, Margaret figures, she'll be able to make it up to Letty one way or the other, just as soon as celebrity arrives.

What Schwarz does not give her characters in terms of wisdom—Margaret's thoughts about writing are relentlessly juvenile, and Letty's chase after social status is overwhelmingly familiar—she compensates for by way of irony and tone. Both Margaret and Letty have a somewhat Bridget Jones way of speaking, a sort of playful self-mockery that teeters somewhere between cuteness and despair.

Says Margaret, about her attempt to focus on her "work": "This was a forced concentration, a grit-your-teeth-and-press-your-fist-to-your-forehead-in-imitation-of-'The Thinker' concentration, a concentration in which one quarter of the brain dragged the rest screeching with the handbrake pulled up hard. It resulted in halting words, painfully squeezed forth one by one, as in the proverbial blood from a turnip."

Meanwhile, Letty e-mails Margaret about her desire to live in a fancier abode: "If I were the kind of person that lived in that house, I wouldn't have painted my toenails in the car on the way to the party; I would not have told my babysitter to microwave frozen enchiladas for my children's dinner; I would have remembered to make an appointment at the vet. I would be serene; I would be respectable; I would be a better Letty. You scoff. Yes, I can hear you scoffing away. But you have to agree that surroundings are important. If you feel sunnier in a bright room than in a murky one, wouldn't it follow that in a spacious, well-organized house, you'd feel generous and in control?"

It all ends calamitously, of course, as Margaret pulls Letty out into darker and darker waters and Letty, desperate Letty, offers herself up to the sharks. To say more about the ending would not be fair to Schwarz or to the reader, and that's unfortunate, because the book's true strength lies in the way Schwarz rams the hapless ambitions of her female protagonists up against each other and turns what feels (for the longest time) like a frothy farce into something closer to tragedy.

There are real issues, for all writers, about the appropriation of other lives for the sake of art. Writing is fraught with moral dilemma. Schwarz circles these hard truths in All Is Vanity, but she is impeded, in the telling of her tale, by the tedious self-absorption of her characters, the almost absurd quality of their myopia. Besides, Schwarz proved that she has real talent with her first novel, that she does in fact know far more than the rudimentary basics of character and plot. Had Margaret had some of Schwarz's wisdom in her, had she found a way to express it, All Is Vanity would have likely transcended the many perils of its conceit.
Publishers Weekly
The die was cast for Margaret and Letty back when they were childhood friends, in Pasadena, Calif. "Even in our games, she was always Robin to my Batman, Watson to my Holmes, Boswell to my Johnson," the grown-up Margaret muses in the East Village, where she now lives with her husband, Ted. Margaret has decided to quit teaching English to rich kids and write a meaningful novel. The trouble is, she doesn't have a plot. She strains to invent a hero, Robert Martin, who interminably makes breakfast while remembering Vietnam. But it is more fun to use her computer to exchange e-mails with Letty, a devoted mom whose world is turned upside down when her husband, Michael, lands a big-deal museum job in L.A. and the couple begin spending beyond their means. A while after the reader has figured out that Margaret would rather script Letty's life than Robert's, Margaret gloms onto the weird equation. The deeper Letty sinks into debt and degradation, the better the chances that Margaret can write a bestseller about her and make enough money to save them both. Exit Robert, enter Lexie, based on the Lettie whom Margaret manipulates electronically while feigning a best friend's concern. Schwarz (Drowning Ruth) has a wicked eye for human foibles. Ted's relentless accountancy (he records the purchase of Tic-Tacs), successful writer Sally Sternforth's insufferable ego, the cavalier ways of literary agent Heather Mendelson Blake, Michael's blind ambition: Schwarz nails them all. As funny as it is cruel, the novel sweeps you along on its fast-track slide to hell. While some readers may cavil at a morality play without redemption, others will respect the no-exit spin on ambition and greed. (Oct.) Forecast: Schwarz's Oprah-pick first novel-a historical drama-played to a very different audience than her second does. All Is Vanity will attract fans of urban satire and is a perfect cautionary tale for aspiring writers. Author tour. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
After the painful clarity of her debut, Drowning Ruth, Schwarz tries something completely different and it works. At its heart is the exasperating and self-absorbed Margaret, who is overwhelmingly convinced of her own worth and perfectly content to lord it over good friend Letty, even if she does dwell on the opposite coast. As Letty struggles to raise a passel of kids, relieved that her art professor husband has a high-stakes offer from a museum, Margaret quits her teaching job at a private school in New York because she has decided to write a novel. Not surprisingly, the results are pretty disastrous but then Margaret throws out her text and starts with a new idea that involves manipulating Letty and her new-found fortune: "My novel would be all the better, I now saw with frightening clarity, the worse things got for Letty." What's noteworthy here is that the awful Margaret is both believable and mesmerizing you can't stop reading her story and it's a pleasure to watch Schwarz skewer so many aspects of contemporary consumerist society without sounding either condescending or self-absorbed herself. Poisonous good fun and a little heart-breaking, too; for all public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/02.] Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal" Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
After her compassionate and hugely successful debut (Drowning Ruth, 2000), Schwarz returns with something completely different: a mean-spirited account of how a would-be novelist who can’t write brings down her best friend, a domestic social striver with dreams beyond her means. With great fanfare, Margaret quits her job as a private school English teacher in Manhattan to write her novel. Although she and husband Ted, who works for a nonprofit foundation, already live on a tight budget, Ted is supportive at first. After all, Margaret has assured him she can finish the book in a year. The only problem is that Margaret has no clue what to write. She begins and discards the story of a Vietnam vet, but mostly she fritters away her time in all the ways many (most?) writers know all too well--household chores, eating, and communicating with her best friend Lydia. Lydia and Margaret grew up together in California. Margaret was always the precious, more sophisticated one, the Robinson Crusoe to Lydia’s Friday. But it quickly emerges that Lydia has some natural talents, for language and writing for instance, that went unremarked by either. Lydia is still in California, a stay-at-home mom with a brood of children and a strapped budget whose husband Michael has just been lured from his tenured professorship to a better-paying, more high-profile job at a well-endowed museum. Soon Lydia and Michael begin spending: restaurant meals, new clothes, a new dishwasher, a new house. As Lydia e-mails Margaret about her domestic misadventures and about her increasingly more luxurious life with its accompanying financial strains, Margaret’s creative juices begin to flow. When Margaret starts egging Lydia on togreater excesses of spending, she knows she’s manipulating Lydia’s life for the purpose of her Madame Bovary–like plot. Unfortunately, she can’t manipulate Lydia out of financial ruin anymore than she can get her book published. Brave in its unforgiving nastiness, if not exactly amusing (and possibly toxic to aspiring writers). Author tour
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345439116
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 11/4/2003
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 847,424
  • Product dimensions: 5.49 (w) x 8.16 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Christina Schwarz is the author of Drowning Ruth, a bestseller in both hardcover and paperback, which was selected for Oprah's Book Club, and Wes Craven optioned film rights for Miramax. She lives in New Hampshire.

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Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

Margaret

I WAS A PROMISING CHILD. When I was seven, I spent an entire week hunkered down on the cranberry red carpeting in my father's study, building a scale model of the Temple of Athena at Paestum. I carved the columns out of Ivory soap with a paring knife and pushed red clay through my Play-Doh press to tile over the Styrofoam roof. I painted a frieze, which was cheating and ultimately unsatisfactory, since it was not authentically three-dimensional. My father wondered why not the Parthenon, but I wasn't interested in the obvious.

"Everyone knows the Parthenon, Dad," I said, in a superior tone, although, in fact, I knew no one other than he who was at all acquainted with the Greeks.

Three months after I'd finished my temple, my little brother, Warren, was parking his Hot Wheels in it.

When I was eight, I sewed two chamois I swiped from the garage into a little dress in the style of the Lakota Sioux. You'd think this would be less ambitious than the Temple of Athena, but the beadwork was extensive. Beads were very big then—my friends and I sat cross-legged on the driveway with little cups of color-coded plastic treasure near our knees and threaded them on elastic to give to one another as necklaces and bracelets. I had to cut apart five of the six chokers my very best friend, Letty, had given me to get enough beads just to finish the bodice of the dress.

My mother was less pleased with the Lakota costume than she'd been with the temple. Architecture, yes. Sewing, no. But at that point in my career, I didn't care what my mother or anyone else thought. I didn't care that the columns of my temple had bits of sticky string tied around them—to pump the gas, Warren explained—my pleasure was all in the making.

I could go on—I laid out the city of Ur in clay on the Ping-Pong table, rendered a map of Asia as experienced by Marco Polo, compiled a catalog of Scottish clans, and produced a page of medieval-looking illumination with hand-mixed inks—but I think my point is clear. I was precocious. I was enthusiastic, unswerving, creative. I had imagination. It took me only twenty years to realize that none of this mattered.

What you find out in your thirties is that clever children are a dime a dozen. It's what you do later that counts, and so far I had done nothing.

But I was going to change that, starting right now, this morning, Saturday, June 15. I'd set the alarm for four forty-five and was at my desk by five. The sky over Lower Manhattan was the gray of used wash water. I would shower around nine, I decided, to refresh myself after logging a decent morning's work. I had easy to hand two new and newly sharpened pencils—the soft number ones I liked—and a legal pad for notes. The cursor pulsed eagerly on the blank screen before me. I drew my feet under me and sat on my heels. I leaned forward, ready, nearly holding my breath. It seemed as though, with just a nudge, my novel would spin from my pent-up imagination in skeins of gorgeous, moving words.

"Elaine pushed her fingers through her long, dark hair in the pearly dawn," I typed—it was the first sentence that came into my head—and then rested a moment, reaching to tease from my own hair a snarl the cat had painstakingly worked into it during the night. Why "Elaine"? Should my main character have the name that came first into my head? Shouldn't the name suit the character the way "Daisy" suited Daisy Buchanan? With one of my pencils, I printed neatly on the legal pad—"Buy baby-naming book."

"Margaret?" My husband's voice came from the bedroom, muffled by down comforter and sleep.

"Ted, I'm working," I said, a touch of righteous indignation in my tone.

"Come back to bed," he murmured dreamily.

Fourteen hours before, I'd been an English teacher at Gordonhurst Academy, a private school on the Upper East Side. The administration had put on a little party in the Marshall Room to send off all of us who weren't coming back in the fall with Chinese chicken salad, a favorite cafeteria offering, and grape juice made adult by the addition of cranberry and seltzer. One by one, we were called to stand before the portrait of Fitzhugh Marshall to collect a handshake and a gift—Suzy Cargill, an art teacher, who was having a baby and had decided to stay home for a year; Valerie Finkelstein, who was trading biology classes for med school; John Kingsley, who was moving to St. Louis to be with his girlfriend; and Penny Burich, who had won the outstanding teacher award the year before and was going to Columbia for a doctorate to become an even better teacher than she already was.

"One of our colleagues from the English department is leaving us to write the great American novel," the headmaster announced.

I blushed and began to push my chair back.

"And I'm just hoping for a run-of-the-mill novel," I think I said, as I shook his hand, although, oh, yes, in some shameful corner of my ego, never to be admitted in public and to be tasted only with the tiniest, most fleeting lick in private, was a hard little lozenge of belief that this grandiose idea was true. Why not? I was an American, wasn't I? That I had not submitted for publication a single line since Cricket magazine passed on "The Misplaced Mitten" when I was twelve only meant that I had reservoirs of untapped talent.

My gift was a pair of slim books—one titled Character, the other Plot. I was touched by this gesture of support, although I knew I would use them only for a laugh. I had paged through that kind of thing often in bookstores, mostly to reaffirm that I would be a writer different from their intended audience. I aspired to be an artist, to blaze a fresh trail in prose, not to write the kind of paint-by-numbers potboiler such manuals encouraged. "You know," Neil McCloskey, my department head, said to me, quietly, kindly, as I held the books up for the teachers to admire, "you're always welcome back, if, you know, things don't work out."

I complained about this to Letty on the phone Saturday afternoon.

"But that's nice," she said. "He values you."

"It isn't nice—he assumes I'll fail."

"That's not a reflection on you. Think of all the great writers who couldn't get published. Think of Emily Dickinson."

"She was a genius, way ahead of her time. I doubt I'll write something too good to be published." There was, it seemed, some limit to my arrogance.

"Well, anyway, I admire you. I'd never have the guts."

"What you don't have is the time," I said, and, as if on cue, a crash sounded somewhere in the background, followed by a frantic wail.

"Gotta go," she said, and was gone.

Letty and I were so young when we met that neither of us can remember the occasion. Our mothers, so the story goes, deposited us in a playpen at Johnson campaign headquarters in Pasadena and told us to amuse ourselves. Other than their sporadic loyalty to the Democratic Party, and the fact that both of them relish the entirely fictitious notion of themselves as young women so busy with the affairs of the world that they raised their daughters to be independent even as infants, my mother and Pam Larue have very little in common, and their friendship was long ago reduced to the exchange of nonreligious "holiday" cards. But Letty and I have ever since been as close as twins.

That's not to say we're alike. It's more that we're a sort of team, in the classic sense of hero and sidekick, and I don't think I'm being immodest, but only truthful, when I cast myself as the hero. Of course, she's much better than I am at many things, but her qualities—patience, for instance, and an easy laugh—are those that make for a good right-hand man. Even in our games, she was always Robin to my Batman, Watson to my Holmes, Boswell to my Johnson, and the times when she's been clearly the leader have been uncomfortable.

I remember distinctly an incident in first grade, when we were each assigned to render a tree in fall colors. It was work obviously well below my level of accomplishment—at home I'd recently completed a mosaic of painted macaroni that approximated one of the floors of Pompeii—but it was enjoyable to do something that didn't demand all of my resources, and I was quite pleased with the artful way I'd arranged and overlapped my swatches of construction paper.

Our teacher had been making the rounds of the room, peering over shoulders noncommittally, when suddenly she stopped.

"Look here!" she exclaimed, whisking Letty's paper off her desk and holding it up. Two or three construction paper "leaves" fluttered to the floor. "Now this is a tree!"

Letty's tree was good. She'd painstakingly shredded her paper into pieces so small and massed them with such intricate variation that the crown gave the effect of actual foliage. Her work was not only good, it was, I recognized with a pang, better than mine, which now looked clumsy and haphazard—the efforts of a child—in comparison. Thankfully, I had the presence of mind to beam at Letty, who kept her head bent, shyly hiding a small, proud smile. Nevertheless, I was not happy for her. I was instead trying to console myself by noting that she had had the advantage of the sort of glue that dispensed only a small amount when you pressed the rubber applicator against the page, whereas I was forced to use the much more difficult to manage Elmer's. I even, for one brief second, disparaged her in my mind for putting so much energy into such a banal assignment.

Even as I experienced these feelings, I was deeply ashamed of them, and that shame is the only thing that now keeps me from utterly despising my small self. But while on the one hand I vowed never again to begrudge Letty her success, on the other, I promised myself that from that moment forward I would strain to the utmost, no matter what the project, so as never to be in a position to feel such chagrin again. That was the lesson I learned from first grade.

Letty was never so driven, which was at least in part the fault of her family. I think her parents must have had big plans for her when they named her Letitia, but there was never all that much get-up-and-go in the Larue household, and they let her name lapse into Letty almost immediately.

My mother was much more firm of purpose. "Please call her Margaret," she would say forbiddingly to everyone, even the well-intentioned mailman, who tried to shorten my name. My name, of course, presented a minefield of opportunities for corruptions—Meg, Peggy, Maggie, Margie, Maisie, Rita, Gretchen. She would accept none of them.

"Why?" I begged many times, especially during my Little Women period.

"Because your father and I named you Margaret," she said. "When you're older, you can let people call you whatever you decide, but I want to get a decent run out of the name we chose."

"Don't you like your name?" my father asked, puzzled and a little hurt.

I realize now that it wasn't the name I didn't like, but Margaret herself, whom I was beginning to find a little bossy. Margaret was admired, but Peggy, I believed, would be well liked. The way Letty was.

When I'd told Ted over our very late breakfast that I planned to work that afternoon and couldn't go with him on our regular Saturday ramble through the city, he was sweetly disappointed. "I thought you worked this morning. You don't need to write the whole thing the first week."

"I know, but I want to get a good bite out of it. If I just get half a chapter done this weekend, then I'll have a head start on Monday, when I can really buckle down while you're at work."

"You're right," he said. "If you think you'll get something done, you should work. Maybe we'll go to a movie tonight, then."

"Maybe," I said, "but I might be pretty far into my story by then. I may not want another narrative intruding."

Our kiss at the door savored of our great expectations for me.

I microwaved a cup of leftover coffee before I sat down at the table, turned on my laptop, and retrieved the document I'd named "Novel." Elaine with her ridiculous hair leapt onto the screen. I read over the single sentence I'd composed that morning. It seemed flat. It was going nowhere. "Pearly dawn" was pretentious. What had I been thinking, I wondered, pressing the delete key firmly? I couldn't write a novel just by stringing sentences together. I needed a plan, a sense of what I wanted to say. What did I want to say?

I pushed my laptop aside. I would take notes first, sketch out my ideas in old-fashioned ballpoint on solid paper. I noticed, as I bent to pick my pen off the floor where it had rolled, that the rug badly needed vacuuming. What with final exams and the deluge of grading, I hadn't cleaned the apartment in weeks. I tried to think of an important idea on which I could build a firm base for an important book, but the grit kept drawing my eyes to the floor. The windowsills, too, were fuzzy with dust, and the bottom of my coffee cup had collected some stickiness from the kitchen counter. I'd be able to think more clearly if my environment was less chaotic.

Around five-thirty, I sat down again at the computer. I'd cleaned all afternoon with satisfying concentration, interrupting my efforts between finishing the kitchen and starting the bathroom only for my call to Letty. I felt focused and relaxed, even a little weary. I was now ready to settle down for a few hours of mental exertion, so the sound of Ted's knock at the door was somewhat irritating.

"Why do you refuse to carry keys?"

In his hand was a small, plastic bag.

"What's that?"

"Just a little surprise."

I reached for the bag, but he held it back. "Later," he said. "It's not to be given without ceremony."

"So you had a good day of work?" he said, glancing into the closet with the window on an air shaft we both used as a study. But I'd been careful to turn off my laptop.

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Interviews & Essays

Caitlin Flanagan and Christina Schwarz have been friends for more than ten years and have been critiquing each other's writing for nearly that long. Caitlin is a contributing editor at The Atlantic Monthly and her review essays on domestic life appear regularly in that magazine. Her book on the perils and pleasures of the modern housewife–Housewife Heaven–will be published in 2004.

Caitlin Flanagan: Tina, we always said that once we were published writers we would tell people about "the seminar." This is our chance.

Christina Schwarz: We began as part of a writing group, the other members of which dropped out as they decided they had much better things to do than write and discuss and rewrite pages of what to any reasonable person were obviously never-to-be-finished novels and short stories. Caitlin and I, however, stubbornly kept at it. Year after year–yes, year after year–we met every week or two for three hours or so, either in my wind-buffeted, freezing apartment on hard wooden chairs or in her stuffy apartment on a comfy sofa, painstakingly going over the notes we'd marked on one another's pages, dissecting characters, plotting plots and laughing; pacing, moaning and laughing (me); drawing up to-do lists, highlighting passages and laughing (Caitlin). There was also much snacking.

People often ask whether I recommend joining a writing group. Yes, but only if you find someone to work with who believes in you so strongly that they're willing to tell you the bad as well as the good, and whose opinions about writing you respect. The combination is tough to come by. Caitlin and I have had that in each other,plus, as a bonus, unfettered hilarity. I honestly wrote a lot of All Is Vanity simply to make Caitlin laugh, and she's the real comedian of the two of us, so if you find the novel at all amusing, imagine the sort of entertainment I'm treated to.

"The seminar" has been without question the best aspect of my writing career, and, ironically, we've met far less often since we've become published writers. In large part, this is because we've been living on opposite coasts, but sadly, I fear it may also be because now that we're writing "seriously"–in other words, for money–we feel that less of our work time can be devoted to laughing and snacking.

CF: Because I live in Los Angeles, have small children and am your friend, several people have assumed that I am the inspiration for Letty. This is frustrating because I think it's apparent that I am, in fact, the inspiration for Margaret, the blocked and unsuccessful novelist. Could you please clear this up?

CS: Are these people who know you? I mean, I love the way you're (slowly) decorating your house, but, I repeat, are these people who know you? Aside from the fact that Letty is self-deprecating and has a sense of humor, you two have very little in common. You do share Margaret's eye for the ridiculous and perhaps her penchant for color-coding (see aforementioned "to-do" lists and highlighting); all significant similarity, however, ends there, as you well know.

Someone at a reading asked me if I was "still friends with that girl." I suppose she assumed that I was Margaret and had stolen a friend's material–yours, I guess–to make this book. I think this confusion comes from my use of the first person–I know I often have to remind myself when reading a novel in first person that this is not the author's voice, but the character's.

All that having been said, you did provide the germ for the whole story. I remember quite distinctly working in my bedroom/dining room/office right after moving to New York and feeling like my life had pinched in to four walls and a sharply sloping ceiling, while your life was literally burgeoning–you were pregnant with twins. And I wrote to you that the idea of a would-be writer stealing the material in her friend's letters–we were still letter writers then–for the plot of her novel might make a good book. 

CF: One thing I love about All Is Vanity is the juxtaposition of Margaret's frugality with Letty's wastrel ways. Clearly, Letty's abandon with money leads, in part, to her downfall. I've always wondered: does Margaret's thrift in any way contribute to her — and Letty's - ruin?

CS: Oh, I wish it did. I remember a time in the early years of working on my first book, Drowning Ruth, when I thought every detail had to forward or echo the themes of the novel. In theory, I might still believe that this is necessary for a truly excellent book–I'm not sure–I haven't thought about it enough. In practice, however, there's no way I can keep the universe of a novel so tight.

Margaret's frugality is mostly a reflection of Ted's, and his came about because I needed some tension other than public humiliation–can you believe that isn't enough?–to make Margaret worry about the time passing without a novel being produced. Ted's concern about income–a realistic one, obviously–provided that. Once I'd set Ted on his path, though, I admit he became a little extreme. I'd had the idea of the ledger in which he records all their expenses when I was writing my first book, because my great grandfather apparently kept such a thing on his wedding trip, and I always found that interesting, really just because it was old. I never found a place to put it in that novel, but it must still have been on my mind because it somehow fell right into Ted's lap. The scenes in which he and Margaret argue about money were some of the most fun to write.

Also, it seemed important that Margaret and Ted's attitudes form a clear contrast to Letty and Michael's. And finally, I didn't want Margaret's desire for the world's respect to be clouded by a wish or need for money. She's not writing to get rich, and because of the way she lives, she doesn't care about making much money until Letty needs it.

Now that I've written all this, it occurs to me that I'm glad her frugality doesn't contribute to her downfall. There may already be too many parallels between Margaret and Letty as it is. A novel shouldn't be symmetrical.


CF: I've taken a lot of advice from you in my life, and you've always given me sound counsel. I'm confident that you've never orchestrated anyone's demise, but have you ever been tempted to nudge a friend toward something unwise, just for the thrill of seeing what happens?

CS: No, and that's why, back when I was trying to avoid becoming a writer, I performed miserably at my initial interview at the CIA. "Tell me about a time," the interviewer said, "when you manipulated someone to do something you knew wasn't in his or her best interest." I couldn't think of a single instance, and the whole idea so threw me that I couldn't even fake it. They offered me a job as an analyst, but they wouldn't let me become a spy.

Although I wouldn't go so far as to say I've never manipulated anyone, I've never done so deliberately, or even consciously. Wait–I take it back. My brother and I did try to convince our little sister that the middle seat in the car was the plum when we wanted the windows--does that count? Nudging a friend to do something I thought unwise would make me feel sick, not thrilled. I realize that dooms me to the world of the earnest, rather than to that of the clever, but it can't be helped.

CF: Drowning Ruth took you a hundred and twenty-seven years to finish (or whatever you're telling people), but I think you finished All Is Vanity in less than two. I've always worried that because we didn't re-convene the seminar for your second novel, you were able to shave your production time, but I think you have some other reasons for the speed-up?

CS: The main reason is my fear of authority. I signed a contract to deliver a book in two years and I was scared to ask for more time. I was also paid to deliver an outline before I began, so I wrote one, which helped a lot, even though I didn't follow it faithfully. The plot in All Is Vanity is much more straightforward than that in Drowning Ruth. It has many fewer characters and it takes place over the course of a year and a half, rather than fifty years, all of which made speedier writing possible. Also, I wasted a lot of time while working on Drowning Ruth worrying about whether I was kidding myself when I thought I could write a novel. With All Is Vanity, I figured since I'd written one, I didn't have any excuse not to do another. And finally, I know that with Drowning Ruth I taught myself (with much help from you) to write at a very fundamental level. If not for the seminar, that book would have taken five times as long, if it had ever been finished at all, what with the pesky problems of plots that refused to gel and characters that kept changing roles. People say you should write your first novel and put it in a drawer–I wrote my first three novels trying to get through that one.

CF: During our long tenure as unemployed and unpublished writers, we were often encouraged to stop lollygagging and just submit our manuscripts, but we had a good reason for holding on to them: they weren't very good. Or so we told ourselves. But now — at least as far as Drowning Ruth is concerned — I have to wonder: was it self-doubt or accurate literary and commercial judgment that kept you from sending out your novel a year or two earlier?

CS: I think we were absolutely right on two counts. First, that we didn't write anything worth publishing for a long time, and second, that someday, if we just kept working on it, we would. That editor who imagined you were somehow writing these terrific pieces in national magazines from the first moment you put pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard has no notion of the years of seminar work in which we privately honed our craft (in between the laughing and the snacking).

CF: Has motherhood made you a better writer, or simply a more harassed one?

CS: This is a superb question. Since I'm not very far into motherhood yet, I'm hoping my answer may change someday, because so far I would have to say that motherhood has not only made me a more harassed writer but also a worse one. I am more efficient–I even think more efficiently–when I can think, but I can't think very often or for very long, and very seldom is all of my brain focused on my work, even when someone else is taking care of my son. And I can't even turn the computer on when Nicky is awake anymore because he wants to push the buttons. It upsets women when I say this, but I'm pretty certain that over the course of my career I'll write fewer novels than I would have if I'd never had a child and those that I do write will be less good than they could have been. But I don't care. I am more than happy to pay that price.

CF: Your two novels are so different in every way: in mode, style, setting, period. Why not stick to what worked the first time around?

CS: Much as I loved the world of Drowning Ruth, the idea of having to climb back into it immediately after finishing that novel enervated me. I knew I couldn't write another book like that well, at least not right away. So, in a sense, this book is a reaction to the first. I could do all sorts of things in All Is Vanity--express irony, for instance–that I couldn't in Drowning Ruth. Also, in a way, the character of Margaret is responsible for this novel. Her voice sprang into my head full-blown very early on, as Amanda's did in Drowning Ruth, and it certainly dictated the tone. I actually didn't intend All Is Vanity to be funny when I began it–that's all Margaret's work.

CF: Some people have complained that your characters aren't admirable. What do you say to them?

CS: A good person behaving well or an evil person behaving badly isn't interesting. But a good person behaving badly–now that's a compelling story. If people are honest, I think they have to admit that they don't always do what they know to be right either. That's what makes humans fascinating. Some readers want characters they can look up to, but to me that's not the point of fiction.
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Reading Group Guide

1. This quotation by William Dean Howells, an anti-Imperialist writer during the early 20th century and friend of Mark Twain, precedes All Is Vanity: “People are greedy and foolish, and wish to have and to shine, because having and shining are held up to them by civilization as the chief good of life.” Do you think Howells’ observation about human psychology is correct? Furthermore, what do you make of the distinction between “people” and “civilization”? Are the structures and contrivance of civilization made by people? Why do you think Schwarz chose to begin with this quote and how did it influence your reading of the novel?

2. Is Margaret a sympathetic character? How is she interesting; how is she flawed? We only hear Letty’s direct voice a few times throughout the novel — how well did you get to know her? To whom do you relate more, Margaret or Letty?

3. As a child, Margaret thinks “Margaret was admired, but Peggy, I believed, would be well-liked. The way Letty was.” (8) At the end of the novel, Margaret signs her letter to Judge Brandt “Peggy Snyder.” What do you think motivated her to do so? A desire to be well-liked or a desire to be more like Letty?

4. Margaret and Letty are both extremely imaginative women, but their imaginations don’t always go beyond the limits of particular roles and/or situations. Margaret comments “I had trouble imagining jobs other than those depicted in television dramas…” (12) Do you relate to this tendency of Margaret and Letty — to base imagination on false appearances instead of reality? Why do you think Margaret and Letty share this character trait?

5. Have you ever had a friendship like the one between Margaret and Letty? What do you think about their friendship? What do you think of the boundaries of intimacy between female friends? Do such boundaries exist?

6. Early on, Letty says “I can’t blame Margaret entirely. Though she directed, I acted. The question is: who wrote the script?” (18) Who do you think wrote the script for Letty’s demise? Do you think there is a clear-cut answer?

7. Schwarz deals with notions of class and class mobility throughout the novel. How would you describe the class structure that she portrays? What does it mean for one to be “classy”? Are social classes real, fixed entities or are they perspectives that one adopts?

8. Mothering is another theme in All Is Vanity. Letty is a mother of four children, and early on, Margaret, buying baby name books, describes herself as a mother because of her novel-writing efforts. What do you think are the similarities between mothers and authors? Do you believe both positions bear the same kind of social devaluation (such as people’s assumptions that it doesn’t take much effort to be a mother or to write a book)?

9. How would you define “work”? Margaret states “Though I appreciated Letty’s attempt to empathize, I did not, I admit, relish her equating her work with mine.” (56) What is the relationship between one’s work and one’s social class? If social class is structured by the kind of work one does (e.g. factory workers compared to investment bankers), then in what class do mothers and authors fit?

10. The novel is structured so that we directly participate in Margaret’s story, while we only see Letty’s life through her emails to Margaret. Do you think the Letty and Margaret have distinctive narrative voices? If so, whose did you like the most? Why do you think Schwarz structured the novel this way? How might this structure dilute or dramatize Letty’s story?

11. Describing the hilarious problems that arise while making petit fours, Letty writes “…these old-fashioned cakes project precisely the right image. They demonstrate that my children come first in that I’m devoting my time and creativity to delighting my daughter’s class with ephemeral finger food, but at the same time they prove that I’m too sophisticated to be limited to a smiley-faced cupcake kiddie world.” (35) Why do you think Letty puts so much emphasis on material goods? Do you think this is one of Letty’s idiosyncrasies or is it a common trait in a consumer culture? Do you identify with Letty’s consumerism?

12. What does it mean to be a “consumer”? While both characters are consumers, Letty desires material goods while Margaret desires intellectual status. Is there a difference between material consumerism and intellectual consumerism? Can people own ideas in the same way that they own a car?

13. What is the difference between fact and fiction? If we think of Letty’s life as fact and The Rise and Fall of Lexie Longtree Smith as fiction, wherein lies the difference? Consider the difficulty Margaret had in creating a character from scratch, as opposed to the ease with which she writes the novel modeled on Letty’s life.

14. Throughout the book, Margaret elaborates on how Letty excelled at almost all tasks: mathematics, languages, cooking and even writing (Margaret confesses that, as a teenager, her letters were modeled after Letty’s). Is Letty the woman that Margaret always thought herself to be? Was Letty really the Robin to Margaret’s Batman? How much of Margaret’s conception of her childhood self do you think is steeped in self-deception?

15. The trials and tribulations of Margaret’s novel-writing are some of the funniest parts of All Is Vanity. Do you think that Margaret’s neurosis is emblematic of all writers? Must a writer be somewhat obsessive and neurotic to succeed?

16. Who do you think is the real story-teller in All Is Vanity: Margaret or Letty? Does Margaret simply appropriate Letty’s story and claim it for herself, or does she have her own story to share?

17. In what ways are Margaret and Letty similar? In what ways are they different? Are the two women simply inversions of one another — when one fails, one succeeds; while one grows poorer, one gets richer?

18. Regarding motherhood, Letty writes to Margaret: “This is why you can do nothing other than pay attention to your children when you’re a mother, because if you’re dying to get back to something else — your own endless story, for instance — you just feel impatient, whereas otherwise you would be utterly charmed by this little creature who really hasn’t been talking for all that long wanting to tell you and tell you and tell you things he’s made up out of his clever little brain” (174). In becoming mothers, do you think women give up all claims to autonomy and creativity? How does this sacrifice compare with the metaphorical “mothering” of an author?

19. Ultimately, what do you take to be the flaw which motivates Margaret to make such poor choices? What is Letty’s flaw? Was there evidence of these flaws early in their character development?

20. Letty describes her husband as an academic who thinks that art is intrinsically valuable — that its aesthetic transcends people and the material world. Yet, in the world of High Art, materialism and consumerism seem to walk hand in hand: from gourmet lunches and dinners, to homes, to elaborate charity functions given for greater art appreciation and education. What do you think is the relationship between art and consumerism? Does art transcend consumerism, or do artists engage in self-deception akin to Margaret’s?

21. Is there a truth to be found in consumerism? Does having better things make you a better person? Is consumerism the sole mechanism for class mobility, or is there something more to socioeconomic class than one’s purchasing power?

22. In the very beginning of Margaret’s betrayal of Letty, she compares Letty’s alter-ego, Lexie, to Jay Gatsby (From F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby) and muses: “Comparing Lexie to Gatsby was somewhat misleading. No matter what Gatsby did, he couldn’t change the fact that underneath he was still James Gatz, a nobody from the Midwest, and therefore unacceptable to posh Ivy Leaguers and their crowd. He got to blame fate and society for his unhappiness. But now, in a world in which any girl from Glendale could go to Yale if her SATs were impressive enough, who did Lexie, or Letty and I, have to blame when we discovered we were not who we wanted to be? Only ourselves.” (229-30). Do you think Margaret’s right? That, unlike the 1920s, people now have only themselves to blame for their social inequities?

23. What do you think is Schwarz’s ultimate message in All Is Vanity? Is there are moral to the story?

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 17 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 29, 2013

    I haven't read this author's other books, but I will check them

    I haven't read this author's other books, but I will check them out to see how they are by comparison. This could have been a good book, 
    but I'm on page 164 and I just wanted to say, these characters could have been sketched out in way less time, and more entertaining things
    could have been done with the plot instead. Also, I'm not sure Schwarz in comfortable with these characters anyway. It feels like she just had 
    to get her perceptions about a type of woman off her chest. In a weird way, I feel like she is writing about who she fears she could be- 
    the would-be novelist, and she's way too convincing! Where is the interest here? I'm just slogging through in case she redeems herself.
     I mean, if her other books are anything like this one, she's not that good. Or maybe
    , she wrote one really good book and should just wait ten or twenty years until she has another good idea. 

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 2, 2013

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    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted February 24, 2011

    Entertaining!

    I thought that the book started out slow, but kept my attention because of the humor and my own curiosity. Halfway through, the momentum changed and I couldn't put the book down. I loved the characters and loved reading about their lives and their problems. Well written, great character development, and a very realistic and relevant story line. A book that I hated to see end. Enjoy!

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 9, 2006

    Snore

    The jacket sounded like such a good story. Unfortunately it took almost 200 pages for something to happen. I admit I did laugh out loud a few times but overall the book was boring.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 2, 2006

    Boring

    I enjoyed Drowning Ruth, what happened with this one? It was dull, the character a loser, I couldn't wait to finish it!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 10, 2005

    Another great hit for Christina Schwarz

    After reading Drowning Ruth, I just had to read another book by Christina Schwarz. I found the beginning of the book to be slow, but once I got through the first half I understood how this was about character development. Margaret, who is supposed to be the main character, is a boring person. Meanwhile, her friend, her side-kick in life is the person with the interesting life and the one who has made it. As the book winds down, the momentum picks up and I just couldn't put it down.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 18, 2005

    Great to follow up Drowning Ruth

    I read Drowning Ruth several years ago. Immediately after reading it, I longed for another book by Christina Schwarz that I could read. Finally, I was able to obtain All is Vanity. I related well to the characters, because I think that many of us avid readers all wish that we could write the great American novel someday. I actually was so engrossed in the novel, and it was so well-written, I didn't want to read what Schwarz had penned for the ending. I wanted to just stop and leave the novel be, but Schwarz was still able to take the novel and make readers see the hard work and dedication and loneliness that can creep into writing fiction/literature.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 8, 2004

    Don't waste your time

    This is the first novel that I've read by Ms. Schwarz, and I can honestly say that I'll have to think twice about reading anything else that she's written. This was entirely too long. The first 200 pages were sluggishly paced, which set a bad precedent for the remainder of the novel. Ms. Schwarz seems to be a decent writer, however, I have to agree with the reviewer below, this novel fell flat.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 1, 2003

    a definite disappointment...

    Nothing against Christina Schwarz who has quite a creative way with words, but the story itself just didn't grab me. I found myself trudging thru most of it, albeit determined to finish once it finally got going about 2/3rds of the way through. I'll have to say the story was an apt reflection of the 'American' way of life, as shallow as that may be. What I found most intriquing about the book was how it gave us an inside look into a would-be novelist's world. The whole process of writing a book fascinates me so I found that part interesting, but the story itself was rather lacking. The ending, especially, seemed to be quite disconnected from the rest of the story. It left me scratching my head thinking, 'What was that all about?'

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 26, 2003

    Excellent book!

    I couldn't put it down. Very funny yet truthful examination of friendships and society. Made me think of ways I might manipulate my own friends for my own needs. Remind me not to try to write a novel!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 18, 2002

    Best book I have read this year

    This book succeeds as both a biting satire of the materialism of contemporary America, and a believable human drama. I laughed out loud at parts of the book, but toward the end I could not put it down because I was so eager to see how it would all turn out. I am not proud to admit I saw a bit of myself and my own best friend in the two main characters, Margaret and Letty. I thought this was a much better book than Schwarz's "Drowning Ruth". This is a great book for any woman who has an ambition to be "something more".

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 13, 2003

    H-m-m-m Perhaps a familiar relationship

    I absolutely loved this book. I think most of us can admit to having "friendships" with an underlying competition going on and the "Green Eyed Monster" at every turn of events. Margaret always in the limelight with he percocious behavior and Letty follows along. Most of us dump these relationships from school but their's continues on. I thought the risk Margaret was willing to take and Letty's trust of her "best friend" was very compelling. It definetly is a book of human emotions, greed, "one up man ship" and selfishness." I really found it difficult to put this book down especially the later 1/3. Humor at every turn but dramatic as well. Excellent! Marlene from NH

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 31, 2002

    ~*~*~*~ BoOk Of dEcEit ~*~*~*~

    Ummm where do you begin with this book...other than to say Margret (one of the main characters) was WRONG!!!! She wasn't a true friend. The book took too long to get to the point. Which was aggravating at times. The "real" story begins somewhat half way through the book!!! But all in all it was an OK book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 19, 2002

    Funny, Sharp, and Well Observed

    This astute and witty novel about two women friends is a sophisticated and astute social satire. But Schwartz has also written a sincere and heartbreaking tale. I couldn't put down the last third of the novel--the book is a very suspenseful page-turner, as well!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 22, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 28, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted February 19, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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