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Elements of Style

Elements of Style

2.8 17
by Wendy Wasserstein

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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.


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.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

Much-mourned Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein pinned her first (and now, alas, only) novel on a Strunk & White aphorism: "Style not only reveals the spirit of the man but reveals his identity." With the sure hand of a veteran dramatist, she draws out the emotions of wealthy Manhattanites as they cope with post-September 11th uncertainties. As always, Wasserstein's writing calls for full ensemble participation; and as always, the voices reverberate long after the action is done.
Janet Maslin
By the end of the book, no amount of shopping and skiing and sleeping around has kept the darkness at bay. One character is a casualty of violence. Another becomes mortally ill and makes stealth visits to the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (where Ms. Wasserstein died) in a limousine. Elements of Style is both a blithe, funny feat of escapism and a sobering reminder of the inescapable.
— The New York Times
Eleanor Lipman
Readers who haven't seen Wasserstein's plays might wonder if Elements of Style was meant to celebrate or satirize high society and its trappings. But we have seen them, and we know. We trust that a dear playwright-friend of hers will take this work from page to stage, with luminous results.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Nixon (Sex and the City) crafts tones and speech patterns for Wasserstein's Upper East Side rich and famous that simultaneously satirize and humanize them. She manages to individualize characters who are, finally, too stereotypic to hold up. Their egotism grows annoying, their race and class attitudes predictable, their divorces and mate swaps dreary. It's difficult to know whether to fault the author or the abridger, though one has no sense of missing sections or passages. All that said, this is Wendy Wasserstein writing. From the double entendre of the title-literary craft vs. fashion and social climbing-we enjoy the irony, humor and moral outrage that move like undertow. Janet Maslin aptly described the book as "chick lit with a chill and a pedigree," and Nixon makes the most of the best of Wasserstein's writing. Wasserstein's plays are superb; her first (and, sadly, only) novel, while entertaining, falls short. With her wicked wit, emotional and sociological insight, and perfect ear for dialogue, she would surely have written many more marvelous plays and, no doubt, some wonderful novels. What a loss! Simultaneous release with the Knopf hardcover (Reviews, Jan. 16). (May) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In the wake of 9/11, New York City's A-list socialites struggle to find meaning in their lives even while they continue to worry over what to serve at their dinner parties. The colorful cast of characters includes style-setting Samantha, who suffers from self-esteem issues; Judy, a carb-abstaining gossip, whose social machinations make up a full-time job; and Clarice, who lists among her accomplishments the keeping of a steady supply of her husband's favorite English muffins at each of their four homes. The more narcissistic characters are balanced by Frankie Weissman, the down-to-earth pediatrician who treats the children of the rich and famous but is not affected by their excessive lifestyles. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Wasserstein (The Heidi Chronicles), who died just before the publication of this first novel, has done a good job of simultaneously poking fun at high society and evoking the anxiety of maintaining a perfect image, capturing a world that is at once fascinating, appalling, and amusing. Chock-full of shopping, mansions, spa treatments, and fine dining, it is a sensuous read, but Wasserstein's ironic perspective saves it from being merely decadent. Recommended for popular fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 12/05.]-Joy Humphrey, Pepperdine Univ. Law Lib., Malibu, CA Short stories Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Young women, in particular, will revel in this tongue-in-cheek, thoroughly satirical depiction of post-9/11 New York society. Wasserstein's skill as a playwright is evident through the witty dialogue and farcical situations she used to create her deeply shallow, largely revolting characters. Inane values, a terrorist bombing, an accidental death, and a debilitating illness compose the dark elements of the novel, initially obscured by the author's light writing style. Our mutual vulnerability to these situations, she reminds readers, is beyond what money, power, and beauty can control. Society pediatrician Frankie Weissman, a compassionate and selfless individual, provides the perfect foil for the thoroughly unlikable primary characters. Frankie is Wasserstein's hero. Perhaps she is Wasserstein herself. This novel is about recognizing what is and who are worth loving.-Claudia C. Holland, Chantilly Regional Library, Fairfax County, VA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
In her first and only novel, the recently deceased Wasserstein (Shiksa Goddess, 2001, etc.) chronicles the lives, loves and sartorial choices of Manhattan's moneyed class. Frankie Weissman is the Upper East Side's favorite pediatrician. Samantha Acton is a beauty with an impeccable pedigree. Judy Tremont is a spunky social climber. Barry Santorini is a movie producer who never misses a chance to remind people that he was once a poor kid from South Philly and that he's rich and powerful now. These are just a few of the well-to-do Manhattanites in this overpopulated book. Unfortunately, no character is given sufficient space to develop as a real person, and there's no strong narrative perspective to turn any of the stories into more than the sum of their parts. There are a few moments of sharply observed detail-Judy Tremont's favorite snack is "four soybeans, for protein, and a chocolate chip, for fun"-but they're few and far between. The story veers between the tragic and the trivial in a way that is merely disharmonious rather than revelatory. Frankie's father's Alzheimer's sits in uneasy juxtaposition with dissections of who's wearing what at a benefit gala. Characters occasionally mention the anxieties of living in post-9/11 New York, but the main impact of that event seems to be spending a Christmas in Palm Beach instead of traveling abroad. A deadly bomb attack on a Starbucks comes off as gratuitous. Ultimately, the reader is presented with notes toward a novel rather than being a completed one. Is this a farcical send-up of New York's elite, or is it earnestly sympathetic women's fiction? The reader never knows, because the author doesn't either. This will not be remembered as animportant part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright's oeuvre. First printing of 100,000
From the Publisher
"Chick-lit with a chill and a pedigree. . . . A blithe, funny feat of escapism and a sobering reminder of the inescapable." —The New York Times“Wasserstein had the rare ability to be sardonic and compassionate at once." —The New Yorker"A modern-day Jane Austen." —Chicago Sun-Times“Wasserstein’s smart, funny sensibility bubbles up on almost every page.” —The Miami Herald

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Elements of Style

By Wendy Wasserstein

Random House

Wendy Wasserstein
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1400042313

Chapter One



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 tightsoff 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.

"Oh sure."

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 decor, couldn't miss the deliberately understated eggshell and dusted cocoa linen couches, the bleached floors, the faded Gustave Lefevre 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 lame 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. Tres 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.

Excerpted from Elements of Style by Wendy Wasserstein Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Wendy Wasserstein is the author of the the plays Uncommon Women and Others, Isn’t It Romantic, The Sisters Rosensweig, An American Daughter, and The Heidi Chronicles, for which she received a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and of the books, Bachelor Girls and Shiksa Goddess. She was admired both for the warmth and the satirical cool of her writing; each of her plays and books captures an essence of the time, makes us laugh and leaves us wiser. Wendy Wasserstein was born in 1950 in Brooklyn and died at the age of 55. Her daughter, Lucy Jane, lives in New York.

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Elements of Style 2.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Finally a real book! Describing upper east side as is - realistic charecters. Didnt want the book to end, what a great read. You will see what money do to peope and what they dont. You experience that workoholic lonely woman and a vain woman chasing chanel as a hoal in life. The best part - all charectars are real! If u live in nyc u prob now one of them! Eye opening book on the UES - it makes u think about u and who u are. The book makes u rethink things. Great read! Can see reading again.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Someone please explain to me why this book should be considered any better than, say, Candace Bushnell. It's a light diversion, but this is NOT a good novel by any standard.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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PattiCakes More than 1 year ago
A fast ,fun book that I didn't want to put down... but I didn't want to finish either!!! Enjoy!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book takes a thoughtful look at post 911 New York from the point of view of Upper East-Siders.
Guest More than 1 year ago
i thought this book was great to read on a lazy day. i read it quick so i didnt get bored of it either!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Unfortunately Ms.Wasserstein resorts to the tired and all too common placement of the 'new' interchangeable bad 'white guy' as a disgusting,classless Italian American movie producer. 'Insert greasy unscrupulous white man...' How about an Italian white guy pizza grease on his shirt! Perfect...Spike Lee does it all the time. Boring
Guest More than 1 year ago
Perhaps you just have to be a New Yorker to really appreciate this book though I think you could apply the personalities of Ms. Wassterstein's characters to people in any city. It was a very easy read, but quite predictable for the most part I thought. I was amazed that in a circle of people in NY immidiately post 9/11 there was no mention of any loss in the terrorist attacks. Not that I would have wanted her to dwell on that, but there were 8 or 9 central characters and no mention of a loss at all? Seemed too unrealistic. As I said, if you're looking for fluff, this is it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was an awful book...devoid of any meaning that I might have hoped to find in a post 9/11 NY...maybe the authors intent? which is wonderful for artistic purposes -- but for pleasure reading. NO WAY. The characters are overly simplistic and one dimensional and the resolution is completely depressing rewarding the least likeable characters who show no discipline - just complete self absorbation.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book. The satire was amazing and unlike the Kirkus reviewer I believed I knew all the characters! Their shallow lives were hilarious and made me glad I never tried to make the list of the Beautiful People, but I did report for W so know the truth is what Wendy captured in her satiric title.
harstan More than 1 year ago
Not long after 9/11 much of Manhattan remains in shock and horror from the mass destruction. Still life goes on especially for those wealthy Upper East Side residents. Pediatrician Francesca 'Frankie' Weissman, Manhattan magazine numero uno doctor in the neighborhood, sees that first hand as her affluent clients visit her wearing Manolo with infants out of a fashion magazine. Even the gas masks are designer label.------ As she services the babies of wealthy blue-blood Samantha Acton, Californian Judy Tremont and movie giant Barry Santorini, all share in common the belief that with money comes life as if 9/11 is an aberration or even a fantasy. As Frankie dates the icons of wealth, she see one of these rich guys as her ticket to Manolo and with it the ability to ignore suicide bombers and ground zero and sacrificing on the war on terrorism by supporting the economy through hedonistic spending.-------- Renowned playwright Wendy Wasserstein recently passed away, but her final work, her first novel, is a fitting tribute as the book is a terrific look at the upper crust of New York just after 9/11. Except for the air pollution, life remains the same as wealth enables the support crust to hide from the ugliness or at least pretend that the world remains the same as it was before the towers came down. Frankie is an interesting protagonist who desperately wants the same lifestyle of her patients as she ignores the trappings of being a card (credit that is) carrying member of the affluent. It is sort of like living in Sodom and Gomorrah with Babel collapsing nearby as life goes on in the big city as long as you do it within the accepted ELEMENTS OF STYLE.------ Harriet Klausner