Pride and Prejudice meets Swingers, and Austen wins handily. It's hard to believe this mild-mannered novel was written by the same James Wolcott who produces such withering cultural commentary in the pages of Vanity Fair. Yet The Catsitters, while purporting to depict the cutthroat world of Manhattan dating, is ultimately a sweet-tempered example of the classic Austen plot. Which is to say, our hero searches high and low for true love, only to find that it was right under his nose all along.
That's right, our hero. Instead of an Emma or an Elizabeth, we get Johnny Downs, a beefy, almost-out-of-work actor who never scores the romantic lead in either life or theater. We also get his caustic friend Darlene, who runs his life over the phone from her hometown in Georgia. This long-distance kibitzer orchestrates Johnny's dates, moderates his behavior, and ultimately sabotages his most successful love affair. And what about the titular catsitters? They turn out to be a couple of Darlene's girlfriends, who come to New York to look after Johnny's cats for a weekend and don't bother to leave, further compounding his romantic problems.
Johnny is the kind of character who seems to move through wet cement; he's likable enough, but we keep wishing he'd get his act together. In the end, he does, to the reader's rudimentary satisfaction. Still, the book is most appealing when Wolcott forgets he's writing a novel and slips into critic mode. There are some happily acerbic lines skewering the theater. An actress in a period play, for example, speaks "as if she were christening a ship." A director greets the protagonist "with both hands extended palms-down, a Fellini-like greeting that directors ought to stop imitating." The depiction of the life of a New York actor is thick with realistic detail; the romance is pure make-believe. --Claire Dederer
From Publishers Weekly
Fans of Vanity Fair's famously mordant critic might be puzzled by the rather mild tone of his first novel. Johnny Downs is that echt Manhattan figure, the actor/bartender: theater is where his heart is; tending bar and appearing in commercials pay the bills. While attending a conference on theater in Athens, Ga., he meets bat-watching grad student Darlene Ryder, who's just quirky enough to pique his interest. Scotching the idea of any sexual relationship between them, Darlene installs herself as a sort of long-distance relationship guru a feminine superego to Johnny's masculine id. Whenever he makes a romantic move, she is always a telephone call away, coaching him. After he is dumped by his current girlfriend, Nicole, the Darlene/Johnny interface gets out of hand she orchestrates his parties, his dates and even arranges for a friend of hers to sit for his beloved cat, Slinky, which leads to all kinds of trouble. Darlene's boundless supply of advice and Johnny's gullible acceptance of it positions the novel as the male counterpart to Melissa Bank's Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing. But when Darlene finally goes too far, sabotaging a romance that actually might work out on its own, Johnny finds out just what their friendship is all about. Although Wolcott's premise shows satiric possibility and his insights into the world of struggling actors are dead-on, the novel handicaps itself by giving Darlene's monomania center stage. Her opinions on everything from aftershave to floor tiles will exhaust readers' patience long before she exhausts Johnny's. (On-sale: June 27)
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