Friday, July 25, 2008

And the Plot Thinned ...


TRUMAN CAPOTE said of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” his classic novella of a New York glamour girl, that he was trying to prune his writing style, achieve a more subdued prose. Of course, Holly Golightly became the lodestar to designers as well as to millions of young women who have been enthralled by her single-minded spirit and by the image evoked by Audrey Hepburn in the opening shot of the film, as the cab races up Fifth Avenue and deposits her in front of Tiffany’s.

Holly is now 50 — as hard as that is to believe. This realization lends a certain poignancy to the many new books in the past year, most of them in the chick-lit category, that have attempted to graft her legend. There are: Lauren Weisberger’s “Chasing Harry Winston,” Kristen Kemp’s “Breakfast at Bloomingdale’s,” Michael Tonello’s “Bringing Home the Birkin” and James Patterson’s “Sunday at Tiffany’s.”

You don’t have to read these books to imagine the outcome: girl meets guy; girl gets guy but first she has to discuss him endlessly with her gal friends and perhaps Mother, who is typically a dragon or an ex-supermodel or both. Subdued they are not. (Mr. Tonello’s inspired book, a memoir of his experiences thwarting Hermès’s wait-list strategy for its coveted Birkin bags, is more on the order of guy gets handbag ... and scores!)

Romantic summer novels are silly, to be sure. What is fascinating about the current batch, which includes “The Beach House,” by Jane Green, is how faithfully they are informed by the values and brands of the fashion world and its parallel universes of entertainment, media and publishing. Ms. Green has made Nantucket real estate a theme of her book. And while she may not know the island well enough to know which direction a character is facing — she has a Spenderella named Jordana gazing at the ocean when it is actually a harbor — she has recognized a clear shift in the East Coast status game.

As her editor, Clare Ferraro, the president of Viking, said, “It’s almost as if real estate has become an accessory,” adding, “It says something about who you are.”

Maybe. But a pair of lizard Jimmy Choos does seem to pale in novelty and conversation value next to a $12-million Nantucket house.

On some level, though, it is terrible to imagine what these books say about ourselves, as escapist as they are meant to be. Ms. Ferraro thinks that such books provide a kind of balm for hard times, in the same way that glamorous movies did during the Depression. Readers, she said, “will be living gratuitously through these books.”

To a large extent, they already are. Jonathan Burnham, the publisher of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, notes that the audience for novels with a heavy quotient of clothes and Page Six dander isn’t made up of East Coast sophisticates. Rather, he said, “The audience is Middle American women looking to buy a taste of the glittering East Coast experience, with all the silliness.”

He also pointed out that the most successful of these books distill the best bits of the fashion world — the clothes, the famous brand names, the over-the-top characters — instead of dwelling in a fashion house or idling too long backstage. Could the travails of designers be a bore? It seems so.

Ms. Weisberger’s 2003 novel “The Devil Wears Prada” was, after all, about a powerful, latte-demanding fashion editor. And since most people knew that her roman à clef was based on her former boss, Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, that added to the intrigue. Despite the exposure the fashion world got from shows like “Sex and the City,” the inner sanctums of the business were still largely unknown to people. “The Devil Wears Prada” was followed a year later by Plum Sykes’s “Bergdorf Blondes,” which Mr. Burnham edited, releasing, it seemed, cataracts of labels and apple-martini-swilling socialites in hot pursuit of equally delish sex.

There is no question that certain brands, like certain summer resorts, have a talismanic effect. And if you can weave a romantic comedy around the Chanels and Sub-Zeroes, as Ms. Green has done — with the sentimental addition of a chic old coot named Nan presiding over a rundown beach house — you might have a best seller.

But this summer’s brand-flogging novels also reveal a kind of empty clink at the bottom of fashion’s well. Is that all there is? Has the fashion plot thinned to such a degree that it’s just about presenting life as a blue velvet ring box or a giant Birkin bag?

When I got done turning down the corners of the pages of Mr. Patterson’s novel that mentioned a brand name or a stylish place (he, too, transports his characters to Nantucket), my copy looked severely riddled. His heroine, a successful if mildly self-loathing playwright named Jane Margaux (as in the wine, Margaux Hemingway?), fairly chokes on the array of contemporary anxieties, observing of her boyfriend, “While Hugh flirted with an obnoxiously pretty and pathologically thin fashion model who had seen HIS play four times, I pretended to study the dessert menu, which, sadly, I knew by heart.” This is, clearly, late-stage withdrawal from fashion.

If Capote mentioned a famous label at all (Mainbocher turns up on a page), it was to merely establish that his glamour girl had good taste.

But fashion wasn’t important to Holly. Despite the Paris wardrobe in the movie version, she made it clear she thought the whole thing was something of a wonderful joke, a bore. Take it or leave it. That was her appeal. As she said, explaining why she didn’t stick around Hollywood and become an actress, “My complexes aren’t inferior enough.”

But the references in most of the new books don’t so much inform us about the pop-fashion world as much as remind us how hideola, to use Holly’s term, it is. “Using all those brand names is sort of bizarre,” said Ms. Sykes. “At the time that ‘Bergdorf Blondes’ and ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ came out, it seemed so modern. Now it seems old-fashioned.”

Ms. Sykes, who writes for Vogue, brought a thorough knowledge of fashion, as well as a Mitfordish humor, to “Bergdorf Blondes.” To her, the most successful of these types of books, like the most successful socialites, are those that “acknowledge that they are in on the joke” that fashion’s over-the-top spectacle presents.

Married and now 38, Ms. Sykes is dubious about trying to come out with another trendy novel. “You can’t write a fashionable comedy about married girls who have two children and are approaching 40,” she said. “For one thing, they can’t wear the clothes.” This does not mean she thinks the form has been tapped out. On the contrary. She fully expects a young person to come along and imagine fashion and New York from his or her generation’s perspective. Maybe with pruning shears.

Ms. Weisberger’s latest novel has been on the New York Times best-seller list for 13 weeks. It seems obvious that with “Chasing Harry Winston” she has put more effort into the development of her characters — three successful gal pals approaching 30, without a dream guy on the hook — than she did in her previous book.

Still, it doesn’t hurt to have a glitzy, double-entendre title (is Harry a man or a rock, or, gosh, does it matter?) and a dust jacket design that recalls “The Devil Wears Prada,” both deliberate decisions, according to Marysue Rucci, her editor at Simon & Schuster. That’s just good marketing, and any fashion dunce understands that.

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