No sophomore slump for Christina Schwarz. All is Vanity is just as good as Drowning Ruth, the debut novel that won critical acclaim and a coveted slot as an Oprah's Book Club selection in 2000.

What this book shares with Schwarz's popular first novel are strong characters, evoked through multiple first-person narration. The novel focuses on two couples: Margaret and Ted in New York, and Letty and Michael in Los Angeles. Friends since childhood, Margaret (the self-interested leader) and Letty (the good-hearted follower), are still close. Now in their mid-30s, both feel vaguely disappointed that they are not further along by now.

The precocious Margaret had excelled in childhood. At 7, she built a scale model of the Temple of Athena from Ivory soap, Play-doh clay and Styrofoam. No wonder she decides to chuck her job as an English teacher to write a novel despite the fact she's never published anything before. Letty, a stay-at-home Mom, believes her dear friend will succeed.

Meanwhile, Letty's scholarly husband Michael gets a chance to work for the Otis Museum. It means they mingle with the wealthy. Quickly, the couple's needs change a bigger house, a better car and more debt to finance it all.

Serious problems arise when Margaret realizes she can't write fiction after all. Desperate, she starts copying Letty's lively e-mails about the search for the perfect house into her manuscript. Pretty soon Letty has become a character named Lexie, whose rise echoes The Great Gatsby and proves fine fodder for fiction.

Ultimately, Margaret must choose between her story and their friendship. Without giving anything away, let's just say that Letty doesn't fare so well. But in the end, neither does Margaret.

The author proves herself to be witty, as well as wise, as she effortlessly highlights the ludicrous aspects of precocious children, aspiring authors, elitist English majors, ambitious mothers and upwardly mobile Californians. All is Vanity is a rewarding read for any fiction lover, but particularly recommended for aspiring novelists. Anne Morris writes from Austin.

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