It's outrageous that Wendy Wasserstein is dead. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, who wrote such groundbreaking works as The Heidi Chronicles and An American Daughter, lived just long enough to complete her first novel, Elements of Style, a darkish comedy of upper-crust errors. Indeed, Wasserstein's death came so suddenly that the back cover of the book's advance copies retains the announcement Author Tour, May 2006. It makes you gasp.
The novel, set post-9/11, covers a couple of years in the lives of ultra-rich Manhattanites and their warmhearted, lonely pediatrician, Dr. Francesca Frankie Weissman if the book has a central character, she's it. At the edges of her life are Samantha Acton, beautiful, blue-blooded and bored to the point of recklessness, and her husband Charlie, a celebrity dermatologist who keeps the fat cells from the buttocks of his clients in the fridge, just in case. Charlie, however, is a mensch, which can't be said for the piggish movie producer Barry Santorini, who collects Samantha as the most glittering of his prizes. He's married to the mousy, self-effacing Clarice, whose life is dedicated to making his life work. Most of these folks have kids who dress up in Prada and attend tony kindergartens in which their parents have struggled, with Darwinian fervor, to enroll them.
The book is funny, sometimes appallingly so ( Glass was scattered on the street like an American Kristallnacht, except the shards were splattered with nonfat Frappuccinos ), and Wasserstein often displays her famous ear for dialogue. But her story darkens as the characters are confronted with one calamity after another: cancer, jail, infidelity, the declining health of beloved parents, suicide bombers, war and the final, Gatsby-esque cover up of a homicide. If Wasserstein were still alive and working on her second novel and umpteenth play the reader might close this book with a shrug and a rueful smile. Now, one can only finish this funny, compassionate book with an aching heart. Arlene McKanic writes from Jamaica, New York.