Wasserstein's Elements of Style
I stayed up late last night reading Wendy Wasserstein’s posthumously published novel, Elements of Style. (Click here for JWA's "We Remember" piece on Wasserstein.) Like all of Wasserstein’s work, her novel is witty, fun, biting, clever, with a strong thread of social criticism. I am always amazed by Wasserstein’s gift to explore tragic themes with such humor and right-on descriptions (e.g., in describing a suicide bombing at a Starbucks, she writes: “Glass was scattered on the street like an American Kristallnacht, except the shards were splattered with nonfat Frappuccinos.”)
The story takes place in post-9/11 New York City, in the world of the Upper East Side elite. The picture Wasserstein paints of socialites of old and new money and their generally ineffectual husbands is not pretty (though it’s toned and flawless, thanks to pilates and chemical peels). Most of the characters can’t seem to hold onto the basic wisdom articulated by the celebrity dermatologist who injects his clients’ butt fat into their faces: “…not only are we all the same beneath the surface, but the surface can be altered in so many ways that what gives us real character is using your mind and never forgetting about your heart.” Again Wasserstein succeeds at creating characters that are over-the-top satirical and yet somehow human, even appealing.
The heroine of the book is Dr. Francesca (Frankie) Weissman, an A-list pediatrician to the socialite set who tends to the children of Harlem on the side. Although she holds the moral center of the book, she is decidedly marginalized in all other ways: she is Jewish in a scene of WASPs, frumpy among the obsessively styled, single in a world of marrieds. She’s lonely, but she’s witty and insightful; in other words, she’s Wendy.
What interested me most is that this narrative – Jewish woman as symbol of outsider, in New York City of all places! – still works in the 21st century. Frankie, after all, is not exactly an arriviste: though the daughter of an immigrant hosiery manufacturer and originally from Queens, she grew up on the Upper East Side and went to Spence, Princeton, and Harvard Medical School – a weightier pedigree than many of the socialites with whom she hobnobs. Jewish women have access to these worlds now, and to the power that goes along with them. In New York City, how marginalized can Jews really feel these days? And yet the metaphor of the Jew as outsider continues to resonate, at least for some Jewish women like Wasserstein, and many of her readers, I would bet. How integrated are we really?
Maybe Wasserstein introduced this theme in part to emphasize the message of her book: that social power, style, and money don’t ultimately protect anyone – a lesson that Jewish history teaches pointedly.
Though I didn’t find this book quite as hard-hitting as some of Wasserstein’s other work, it was a pleasure to read and a bummer to put down, knowing that we won’t be the beneficiaries of any further wisdom and wit from Wendy. May her memory be for a blessing.