three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
23-July-Aug-2006
user_rating: 
0

A-ElementsOfStyleAmong New York’s urban elite, very little has changed since 9/11. The old moneyed crowd, the nouveaux riches, and the social climbers have very few worries besides plastic surgery, the hottest restaurants, and the best private schools. Francesca "Frankie" Weissman, an Upper East Side pediatrician from humble beginnings, observes this world as an "outsider" of sorts, seeking to discern the motives and values of her insular peers. Titled after Strunk and White’s classic manual on grammar, Elements of Style posits style as a possible route to identity. Yet as Wasserstein shows, even New York’s elite are not immune to terrifying, life-defining tragedy.
Knopf. 320 pages. $23.95. ISBN: 1400042313

Ft. Worth Star Telegram 4 of 5 Stars
"The society women’s most telling response to the aftermath of 9/11 is to alter their dinner-party menus to include solid American comfort food, such as roast beef and chicken a la king. … Elements of Style is a good read, with a story line reminiscent of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, although lighter and told from a female point of view." Jessie Milligan

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"Wasserstein peppers her dishy humor with piquant and poignant insights, transcending the chick-lit clichés that Style flirts with. You would expect no less from such a sharp and generous spirit." Elysa Gardner

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"As a playwright, Ms. Wasserstein knew how to center the action on a lovably frumpy alter ego like Frankie. Those tactics are more visibly manipulative on the page, as are the book’s shifting points of view and its awkward romantic contrivances." Janet Maslin

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"What begins as a breezy comedy of manners about the upper reaches of New York society, mostly among the nouveaux riches who have catapulted themselves to the heights, eventually becomes so dark that it seems Wasserstein is playing out her deepest fears on the page. … Like many recent novels, Elements of Style would have been better if it hadn’t leaned so hard on 9/11 as a turning point." Caryn James

South FL Sun-Sentinel 3 of 5 Stars
"Wasserstein has endowed her book with some of the most self-centered, superficial women since Candice Bushnell’s Trading Up. … Wasserstein seemed to be having fun pushing the envelope on [her characters’] foibles and exaggerating their concerns, lifestyles, and value system." Myrna Lippman

Wall Street Journal 1.5 of 5 Stars
"It’s difficult to square the wise, witty Wendy behind The Heidi Chronicles with the Wendy behind the creaky, trite Elements of Style … an unfortunate blend of Danielle Steel and Women’s Wear Daily. … Every now and then, there are flashes of vintage Wendy, even when she makes references to contemporary commercial names." Joanne Kaufman

Minneapolis Star Tribune 1 of 5 Stars
"While Wasserstein does reference the great ‘society’ novels of Edith Wharton and Mary McCarthy, this is more Danielle Steele than Anthony Trollope or even Tom Wolfe. … . It leaves one feeling both cynical and sad, like an hour of reality TV." Emily Carter Roiphe

Critical Summary

Critics felt traitorous calling Wendy Wasserstein’s debut novel, published so soon after her death, a bit of a disappointment, but many agreed that what works so well on stage (the Pulitzer Prize– and Tony Award–winning play The Heidi Chronicles) does not translate well to prose. Some critics thought the novel possessed the verve and "charmingly neurotic" heroine (USA Today)—a Wendy stand-in—of her best-known work and praised Wasserstein’s keen eye for social satire. Others called Elements of Style a so-so effort, filled with clichés, desperation, contemptuous characters, and exhausting laundry lists of shopping sprees. An important message about escapism and identity, however, lurks beneath the fluff.