The New York Times
Elements of Styleby Wendy Wasserstein
Elements of Style, the Pulitzer Prize—winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein’s first novel, is a scathing comedy about New York's high society facing the post—9/11 world. Francesca Weissman, an Upper East Side pediatrician rated number one by Manhattan magazine, floats on the fringes of the upper strata of privilege and aspiration./i>/i>/i>… See more details below
Elements of Style, the Pulitzer Prize—winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein’s first novel, is a scathing comedy about New York's high society facing the post—9/11 world. Francesca Weissman, an Upper East Side pediatrician rated number one by Manhattan magazine, floats on the fringes of the upper strata of privilege and aspiration. Through her bemused eyes we meet the thoroughbred socialite Samantha Acton; relentless social climber Judy Tremont; Barry Santorini, an Oscar-winning moviemaker accustomed to having his way; his supermarket heiress wife, Clarice; and more, tossed together in a frothy stew of outrageous conspicuous consumption and adulterous affairs that play out on Page Six. But when Wasserstein’s madcap tour of the social lives and mores of twenty-first-century Manhattan veers into tragedy, we finally see the true cost of her characters’ choices, and the beating heart of this dazzling novel.
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Read an Excerpt
Frankie completely forgot Samantha ever said she would call. But on a Thursday night while she was dressing for an exercise class the phone rang. Frankie decided to let the machine pick it up and concentrate instead on getting to the gym. If it was her office or something important, it would have been on her pager or the other line.
"Hi, this is Samantha Acton. Great to see you at the ballet." Frankie stared at her phone machine as if it were malfunctioning. "Will you come to dinner next Thursday? I mentioned to my husband, Charlie, that I saw you and he said he'd love for us to get together."
Frankie uncharacteristically lunged for the phone with her exercise tights still around her knees.
"Oh, hi, Samantha."
“Oh, you’re there. Screening, are you?”
"I win a lot of free trips to Orlando. And then there's my father's wife, Helen."
"Oh, I remember her. She wore leopard while all our mothers were in tweeds."
"I’m amazed you remember her!" Frankie was truly impressed.
"She was sexy, and you know, there wasn't a whole lot of that back then. So will you come?"
"Sure. I think so."
"Great. We live at East Sixty-sixth and Fifth, number 4. Say eight o’clock. Can’t wait. Charlie will be so pleased."
Frankie took her tights off her legs and sat down on the couch. She knew there was no way she would still be exercising tonight. Somewhere, she felt enough sense of accomplishment that after thirty years she was finally invited to the cool girls' table.
"I'm going upstairs to Acton." Frankie stopped at the white-gloved Fifth Avenue doorman.
"Elevator to your right."
As Frankie entered the formal lobby she wondered why Samantha didn't live somewhere hipper or less imposing. Then again, Christmas tree earrings in a room full of painters and filmmakers is a yawn. But in a room full of investment bankers and inherited wealth it's practically performance art.
The elevator door opened to a spare gallery of beige walls and Rothkos. A butler opened the door and a waiter appeared with a tray of caipirinhas.
"Can I take your coat?" the butler asked.
Frankie gave him her coat and, for some reason she didn't understand, her purse.
"Would you like to take your shoes off?"
Frankie actually didn't want to. They were suede boots which took her forever to get on. But she was too good a guest not to do what she was told. She sat down in the vestibule to remove them.
The multiple shades of beige continued into the living room. Even Frankie, who had virtually no sense of décor, couldn't miss the deliberately understated eggshell and dusted cocoa linen couches, the bleached floors, the faded Gustave Lefèvre and Eugene Atget photographs on the walls, and the contemporary Cindy Shermans and Clifford Rosses in the corner. She decided that a speck of dust would never have the chutzpah to rear its head here.
Samantha walked into the room arm in arm with an elegant older-looking man. As far as Frankie could make out, Samantha was wearing Prada, or maybe it was Gucci, sheer silver-spangled bell-bottom pants and a sleeveless silver lamé tank top. Her shoes were at least four-inch-high Manolo, or maybe Jimmy Choo, silver sandals, with lace ties around the ankle. For a moment, Frankie was flummoxed why Samantha and her friend were permitted to wear shoes and she wasn't. As she turned her head to acknowledge her host, Frankie noticed a small Giacometti sculpture inconspicuously placed on the bookshelf.
"Welcome. I'm so happy you're here." Samantha leaned down and kissed both of Frankie's cheeks. "Do you know my dear friend Jil Taillou?"
"No, I don't think so," Frankie replied.
"Jil worked for years at Sotheby's, and I was just showing him our renovations."
"It's a wonderful apartment. So calm. And I love the view," Frankie said, looking out at the Sixty-sixth Street transverse and the lights of Central Park South. "Did Pippa Rose design it?"
Jil put down his Grey Goose on the rocks. "Pippa Rose! You must be joking!" he said with a slight European accent. "She couldn't do anything as elegant as this. She's a chintzaholic!"
Samantha and Jil shared a laugh and sat down. Frankie followed them while silently sizing up her fellow guest. She hated herself for so easily categorizing people, but she was after all a scientist, and methodology had to start somewhere. As Jil Taillou reached for an olive, Frankie decided he was definitely gay, on the board of City Opera, well read, and actually from Brooklyn. Nobody's real name is Jil Taillou, especially if they worked at Sotheby's. Plus anyone with that kind of untraceable Middle European accent most likely studied French at Midwood High in Brooklyn.
At this point in her life, Frankie wished all her hosts would stop inviting an extra man to dinner for her. She frankly would prefer not having the illusion of an escort. Besides, these men were always decidedly unavailable but full of opinions, gossip, and connections. But every hostess she knew insisted on an even number of boy-girl seating. Frankie looked forward to a time when she'd be too old for anyone to bother.
"So there I was in Rome with Beatrice." Jil made the point of using the Italian pronunciation. "And we are supposed to fly to Beirut the next day for Amir's engagement party. And you know Mrs. Ouiss had organized the most fabulous party. But we can't go because the entire country is on strike."
"Oh, the Italians are always on strike." Samantha lit a cigarette.
"No, but here's the best part. We had the party in the Vatican instead."
"No!" Samantha seemed riveted.
"Really?" Frankie attempted to dive in.
"Beatrice is related somehow to the captain of the guards who gives private tours to Barbra Streisand and Sting in the pope's closet."
Samantha grinned. "I love this!"
"So they had the engagement party in the pope's closet. Dona nobis pacem, darling. If you think your Gucci pants are a great brocade, you haven’t seen the pontiff’s evening wear!"
Samantha was now convulsively laughing with her hand in Jil's lap as he continued. "Oh my God! Of course I had to try something on! His Holiness is a little shorter than I am but I look a lot nicer in a high collar. And this is the best! I told them anytime they want to have a Vatican sale, I'd do the auction."
"Whose auction?" a middle-aged man in black corduroys and a dark blue shirt asked as he walked into the room. "You guys are having entirely too much fun in here."
Frankie recognized him immediately. Charlie Acton, Omaha, Nebraska. He was a year behind her at Princeton. Nice Guy. A little straight. Army ROTC. He was someone Frankie said "hey" to while walking across campus. She didn't really know him except for a zoology class they had together, and she hadn't thought about him in at least twenty years. Charlie kissed Samantha and sat down beside her.
"Sorry I'm late, sweetheart, I got caught up with that interview."
"Well, we're having a wonderful time. Jil's telling us about Amir's engagement party at the Vatican."
"Wow! Sorry I missed it. Great to see you, Jil." He embraced Jil in the way that Frankie recently noticed straight men pointedly do.
"Francesca Weissman." He took her hand. "I haven't seen you since sophomore-year zoology. I was so happy when Samantha told me she had run into you."
"Were you two college buddies?" Jil asked. "I always wished we were. Just very nice acquaintances," Charlie answered, and helped himself to a caipirinha. "Deixa bebida!" He raised his glass and tossed off the toast in effortless Portuguese.
"What does that mean?" Frankie put down her glass.
Charlie laughed. "It gets you drunk."
While Jil repeated the pope's closet story for Charlie during dinner, Frankie remembered talking to Charlie once after class. It was the day he was rejected from the Ivy Club. Frankie had very deliberately never tried to belong to any eating clubs. Instead, she spent her time outside of class stage-managing for the Triangle Club, the illustrious collegiate theatrical group. But Charlie decidedly wanted the validation. Charlie was a bit awkward as an undergraduate. He listened to James Taylor and Simon & Garfunkel when everyone else had moved on. Frankie remembered that for weeks he carried around a copy of This Side of Paradise in his back pocket. Charlie was the kind of kid who wore a denim jacket because that’s what he grew up wearing in Omaha. Frankie also remembered he always called her Francesca. He said it was what F. Scott would have done.
When the dessert bowls came Jil exclaimed, "I love these bowls. Très moderne classique."
"It's Alvar Aalto." Charlie casually mentioned the name.
"The Finn?" Jil asked only to underscore that, of course, he knew the origins of modern design.
"Yes. We're collecting him now. After dinner I'll take you into the library to see the most terrific chair. In my mind Aalto makes Mies look like Ethan Allen." Charlie smiled wryly at his insider put-down.
"Ever since I burnt all of Charlie's old home furnishings all hell has broken loose." Samantha laughed heartily.
A waiter appeared with a dessert tray of sliced bananas, nuts, ice cream logs shaped like miniature bananas, hot fudge, and whipped cream in silver pitchers.
"Ooh-la-la! Are these the hot fudge sundaes we all read about in Manhattan magazine?" Jil twinkled.
"Francesca." Charlie turned away from his wife. "You're a Princeton graduate. Explain to our guest what bananas, hot fudge, and ice cream generally add up to."
Frankie felt she had no choice but to answer. "A banana split!"
"Correct! That's Princeton for one hundred points! Go Tigers!" Charlie slapped Frankie on the back. Suddenly, Frankie remembered that Charlie's father was a veterinarian in Omaha and Charlie had spent his freshman summer with his dad containing an outbreak of sheep parasites on a Navajo reservation.
"Anyone want a cookie?" Samantha offered a plate of Florentine lace goodies to the table.
"I have to say, ever since 9/11 I've been eating up a storm. Mashed potatoes, peanut butter and jelly, and any cookie or cake I can get my hands on. Charlie, I bet your office is booming with people breaking out from eating too much junk." Jil then bit into his second cookie.
"Oh Jil darling, Charlie's clients don't eat junk." Samantha took a sip of dessert wine. "They just make sure to nibble enough rabbit food so they can put a little butt fat in his refrigerator."
"Excuse me?" Frankie had had enough wine to admit she was lost.
"Francesca, my refrigerator is the most exclusive club for butt fat in the country," Charlie nonchalantly explained. Samantha put her arm on Charlie. "My husband invented the natural alternative to Botox. I can't believe you haven't read You Can Stay Forever Young. Charlie was the first dermatologist guru."
"Francesca, please don't read it. I just inject a patient's own fat cells back into wrinkles and crevices instead of questionable foreign substances." Charlie elaborated further. "I'm even doing it now with some of the burn victims from the Trade Center."
"Did you go down there?" Frankie asked.
"Right away. I'm still working with a woman who severed her hand."
"Oh God, life will never be the same." Jil reached out for another cookie.
"Honestly, Charlie's just legitimizing keeping Adrienne Strong-Rodman's butt fat in his refrigerator because he has a social conscience." Samantha lit another cigarette.
Charlie pulled his wife over toward him. "Honey, as long as your butt is in my house and not in my refrigerator, I'm a happy man."
Jil smiled. "I tell you, the best tonic these days, even better than mashed potatoes or great art, is being with two people who are really in love. Isn't that right, Dr. Weissman?"
"Oh yes. Absolutely," Frankie said while her mind drifted to reading Samantha's first marriage announcement in the Times: "Samantha Bagley to marry Pearson Stimson Phillips." Samantha was getting her M.F.A. in art history from NYU, and Pearson was a graduate of Exeter and Harvard, and currently working in the Training Division of J. P. Morgan. He also had a brief stint on the United States Olympic water polo team. Two years later, Frankie got a call from a high school friend asking if she'd heard that Pearson went off to live in San Francisco with Rick Feldstein, his lover and former roommate from Exeter. Samantha left the country for Paris for two years, ostensibly to do research for her master's. Watching Samantha and Charlie cuddle now, Frankie wondered if she married him because there would be no surprises. If she was his ideal, perhaps he was her semblance of order.
From the Hardcover edition.
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