Fixated on Our Own Brand Names?

In this novel by playwright Wendy Wasserstein, contemptible social climber Judy Tremont is “secretly sure she could write one of those Park Avenue princess novels.” From the very first page of Elements of Style (Knopf, 2006, $23.95), the reader is barraged with the names of fashion designers, prep schools, and socialites real and invented. Among the invented is Samantha Acton, a “thoroughbred” Upper East Sider whose attendance at any party guarantees its inclusion in the gossip columns. Samantha’s husband is a dermatologist whose office refrigerator is “the most exclusive club for butt fat in the country.” Then there is Barry Santorini, a wildly successful director with pockmarked face, trademark sweatshirt, and roots in the working class. His wife Clarice lists as her number-one skill the ability to manage the staff in their four homes.

So what separates Wasserstein’s Elements from the Park Avenue princess novel? Perhaps it’s the inclusion of Dr. Frankie Weissman, an angelic pediatrician who treats both the spoiled brats of the Upper East Side and the asthma-plagued children of East Harlem, while simultaneously remaining devoted to her ailing father Of all Wasserstein’s characters here, Frankie shows the most evidence of a thoughtful and sincere inner life, though she’s fixated on her own brand names; Spence, Princeton, and Mount Sinai Hospital, instead of Hermes, Mercedes, and Saint-Tropez.

The book begins with Frankie reuniting with former classmate Samantha in the fall of 2001. A few adulterous affairs and a few more dinner parties follow, but in place of a true plot, Wasserstein presents a cast of characters to evoke New York City in the immediate aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center. These are all individuals not directly affected by the horror, but who experienced the same fear and anxiety as the rest of the city—albeit with Cipro packed in Fendi emergency kits. Near the end of the novel, Wasserstein veers from what did in fact happen to what might have been. Her description of a second attack the following year seems contrived, although it may be because the reader will certainly still remember the awful reality.

Setting the novel in the recent past is risky because so much of the dialogue is cocktail party chatter. Continuity-obsessed readers may find themselves pulled out of the story as they wonder why The Nanny Diaries and the Vioxx recall appear before their proper historical moments. Most egregiously, the very title of the novel is based on a chronological misstep. It refers to Jil Taillou’s secret struggle to perfect his language by memorizing William Strunk h. and E.B. White’s handbook The Elements of Style. White’s edition was not published until 1959, a full four years after Jil is alleged to have inscribed his own copy as a high school student.

Even with cartoon-like characters and a half-baked plot, Wasserstein manages to address motherhood, social status, loneliness, and aging in this sweet, entertaining, and engrossing novel. However, one book was not enough for Wasserstein to make the transition from playwright to novelist. Unfortunately, her recent and early death means that her debut novel will also be her last.