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A Novel

Written by Wendy WassersteinAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Wendy Wasserstein



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On Sale: April 18, 2006
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

From the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and author of the essay collection Shiksa Goddess (“Utterly delicious”—Judith Thurman), a dazzling debut novel, a comedy about New York’s urban gentry living in a post-9/11 world—the arbiters of fashion and the doyennes of charity balls; about the rich and the nouveau rich(er), the glamorous and the desperate to be.

We meet Francesca Weissman, the Upper East Side pediatrician rated number one by Manhattan magazine, who takes us into the upper strata of privilege and aspiration (she’s originally from Queens with a father in hosiery; life on the fringes of glittering New York is fine with her) . . . Samantha Acton, thoroughbred descendant of the Van Rensselaers and the Carnegies, who defines the social order in the great tradition of Mrs. Astor and Babe Paley . . . Judy Tremont from Modesto, California, daughter of a cop—her life’s work, her obsession, is New York society and its richest families . . . Barry Santorini, Republican, moviemaker, winner of twelve Oscars, and his wife, the Italian supermarket heiress and former media rep for Giorgio Armani . . . and many more.

As Elements of Style opens out, we see a madcap mosaic of the social lives and mores of twenty-first century Manhattan—of romance, work, family, and friendship. Satiric, fierce, touching—and deliciously Wasserstein.

“Pure Wendy! She effortlessly makes the leap from stage to page with a novel that is loving, compassionate, flat-out funny. Wendy loved the word ‘scintillating,’ which is the best way to describe her stunning Elements of Style.
—John Guare

“Wasserstein gets the trappings and tribulations (of friendship and of romance) right, making her depiction of the rich and fab trying to connect with one another witty and entertaining.”
Publishers Weekly

“Bold, nimble, and funny to its fingertips, Elements of Style is a delight, a triumph. A book that no self-respecting New Yorker should be without. Those cursed with the hell of multiple residences will self-evidently need several copies—and spares, for houseguests.”
—Flora Fraser


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

CHAPTER SIX

Frankie


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.

"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 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.
Wendy Wasserstein

About Wendy Wasserstein

Wendy Wasserstein - Elements of Style

Photo © Jill Krementz

Wendy Wasserstein is the author of 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 on October 18, 1950, in Brooklyn, and died at the age of 55. Her daughter, Lucy Jane, lives in New York.
Praise

Praise

"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
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“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

The introduction, discussion questions, author biography, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Elements of Style, the funny, wrenching, deliciously satirical debut novel from the late, great Wendy Wasserstein.

About the Guide

The Upper East Side urban gentry are all in a tizzy. Not only must they worry about who will be seated beside whom at the next big dinner party and when the next shipment of Birkin bags arrives, now they have to make sure there’s an adequate supply of Cipro in the apartment in case of another anthrax attack, and sort out where to winter now that 9/11 has made international travel such a bore. To top it off, Frankie Weissman, pediatrician to every “it” child in upper Manhattan, has had the politically correct audacity to move her office to the cusp of Harlem (gasp!), which means all sorts of riff-raff in the waiting room.

In this razor-sharp peek at the complicated tango of the wealthy and fashionable, Wendy Wasserstein lovingly skewers Manhattan’s privileged set, from the nouveau riche to the old-school thoroughbreds, from the frenzied climbers to the trendsetters. Among this rich constellation of characters is Samantha Acton, whose effortless chic takes everyone’s breath away, yet who is miserably paralyzed by her own ennui. We meet Clarice Santorini, homebody and devoted mom, who has learned to gracefully kowtow to her wheeling, dealing husband, a self-made film baron with anger management issues and the social finesse of an ox. At one end of the spectrum is Judy Tremont, whose only true goal is to rank among the top echelon of New York society, and whose brainy husband embarrasses her by spouting Goethe at the dinner table; at the other is Frankie Weissman, whose father is dying of Alzheimer’s, and whose love life has disappointed her.

Set against the backdrop of a newly-panicked New York, still reeling from 9/11, Elements of Style irreverently vivisects the hilarity and nonsense, the fears and frailties, of even the most untouchable New Yorkers.

About the Author

Wendy Wasserstein is the author of the books Bachelor Girls and Shiksa Goddess, and of 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. 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 fifty-five. Her daughter, Lucy Jane, lives in New York.

Discussion Guides

1. Wendy Wasserstein’s award-winning play, The Heidi Chronicles, follows its female protagonist’s search for self-definition amidst frustration, ambivalence, sorrow, and a coterie of flawed friends. Despite her status as a successful professional, and her involvement in the feminist movement, Heidi Holland hungers for a sense of validation, allows herself to be subjugated to an arrogant, untrustworthy man, and struggles to feel she is part of the history taking place around her. A recurring theme in the play is the disconnect between accomplishment and a sense of well-being. In what ways does Frankie Weissman parallel Heidi Holland? Does 9/11 form the same kind of historical backdrop in Elements of Style that the feminist movement provides in The Heidi Chronicles? If so, how does Frankie position herself in relation to that sociopolitical moment? What kind of progress does Frankie make in the search for self-definition? What is the source of Frankie’s conviction that she is a perennial outsider?

2. For Judy Tremont, 9/11 is an excuse for Ativan anti-anxiety tablets, “just to take the edge off” [p.12]; the cause of headache-inducing gridlock—“the worst traffic days were the ones when the president decided to come to town” [p. 14]; the reason “commercial travel [was] close to impossible, even in first class” [p. 47]; an opportunity to redecorate her home since “it’s unpatriotic now to sleep with the French these days” [p. 104]; and the inspiration for a new approach to floral centerpieces as “ever since 9/11, austerity was in. This wasn’t the time for floating gardenias and birds-of-paradise” [p. 107]. What is Wasserstein’s point in using humor to explore one New Yorker’s reaction to 9/11? What is she saying about the way we process fear? Or is she simply ridiculing Judy and people like her?

3. Barry Santorini’s brutal, heart-on-sleeve honesty makes him both vicious and deeply sentimental. Do his softer moments—“What he wanted now was to express how much love he felt. He knew he had a lot to share and had kept it hidden. . . . He still had a commitment to the future and humanity. . . . He still had a heart” [p. 294]—ring true? Or are they the rantings of a narcissist? Does his background as a humble shoe repairman’s son make him more likeable as a character?

4. After years of failed attempts at having a child, Samantha “had lost confidence in her ability to mother. Like everything else, it seemed too complicated, and not necessary. . . .Samantha preferred to avoid any prescribed intimacy, even with a baby. She longed for pure abandonment” [p. 55]. What does the word “abandonment” mean here? Is there anything that Samantha views as “necessary”?

5. Despite its comic handling, Elements of Style is, at heart, a look at the frailty of life, and the futility of even our most sophisticated social mores to protect us from disaster and mortality. Barry’s seemingly limitless power in the film industry cannot protect him from the ravages of prostate cancer. Judy’s escalating success in the ruthless business of social climbing cannot prepare her for the freak accident that will end her life. Jil’s carefully cultivated pedigree evaporates instantly upon his death, revealing a homosexual immigrant with dubious education. Where else in the novel does this pattern play out? Does anyone in the story emerge unscathed? In what ways can this novel be read as Wasserstein’s reflection on the lessons of 9/11?

6. Why does the author insert a fictional suicide bombing resulting in forty dead and seventy wounded on New York’s Upper West Side? Is this a plot devise, or does it have symbolic meaning?

7. Frankie “had a long history of ambivalence toward the entire privileged New York landscape. . . .She was most comfortable on its fringes” [p. 6—7]. Where does this ambivalence come from? Despite setting herself apart in this way, Frankie does achieve a certain thrill in being included in this landscape. When Samantha and Charlie Acton invite her to dinner, Frankie enjoys a “sense of accomplishment that after thirty years she was finally invited to the cool girls’ table” [p. 39]. And as she anticipates Judy Tremont’s party, she muses that “The butler greeting her at the door, the standing cocktail hour, the seated dinner, the English plates, the silver centerpieces . . . the after-dinner coffee and port . . . would all provide a grounding antidote” [p. 102]. To what is Frankie seeking an antidote? Why does she insist on labeling herself an outsider? Does her waffling on the cusp of the privileged world smack of disingenuousness?

8. Albert Tremont “took a secret delight in his difficult daughter’s acquisitiveness” and admires her classmates’ fathers who had “materialistic ambitions” [p. 18]. Why does Albert think highly of these traits? How do they contrast to his own? Why does his wife’s frantic jockeying for social position fill him with such contentment? Is Albert meant to be read as a buffoon?

9. Wasserstein peppers the novel with absurd images and moments, such as the white women dressed garishly as rappers at the Indie Film Benefit [p. 151], and the “three-foot hookah pipe filled with white narcissus and purple anemones” at Judy’s “Turkusion” party [p. 103]. What does the author intend with her use of the absurd?

10. Wasserstein has been praised for her ability to plumb the female experience for its spiritual and psychological complexities. Is there a difference in how she presents the female characters in the book versus the male?

11. As the novel closes, Frankie’s “ossifying loneliness” [p. 29] has come full circle. What has she learned along the way? What is the significance of the fact that Frankie is on the NICU ward both during the 9/11 terrorist attack and at the conclusion of the novel?

12. Samantha takes un unexpected liking to Judy Tremont, whose “obvious naïve aspiration” [p. 78] brings out a protective side of her. Why do Judy’s antics, which alienate so many others, elicit this fond reaction in Sam? Is there a similar impulse at work in Sam’s reaction to Barry, whose “out-and-out slovenliness . . . she found surprisingly appealing” [p. 123]?

13. Frankie, Samantha, and Clarice all share a propensity for feeling incomplete or ineffectual without a man to define them. Around Charlie, Frankie “felt a very unfamiliar ease as if she had joined a club she had forgotten existed. . . . She was, for the first time in years, not merely examining [life]” [p. 279]. For Samantha, “Being with Barry had made her feel she was no longer going around in circles. She had been a perfectly crafted set piece. But now she was a player” [p. 194]. “For Clarice, the fact that she was Mrs. Santorini wasn’t just about love or money or even family obligation. It was her entire existence” [p. 154]. Does Wasserstein convey any judgment about this propensity in her female characters? If so, how? What is Wasserstein’s intention in showing that even influential, self-made career women like Frankie suffer from this dilemma, as do stereotypical housewives like Clarice? Do any of them achieve a measure of true independence or self-reliance in the course of the novel?

Suggested Readings

Claudia Barnett, Wendy Wasserstein: A Casebook; Dominick Dunne, People Like Us; Wendy Wasserstein, An American Daughter, Bachelor Girls, The Heidi Chronicles: Shiksa Goddess (Or, How I Spent My Forties), The Sisters Rosensweig; Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities

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