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All Is Vanity (Ballantine Reader's Circle) Paperback – November 4, 2003
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Lifelong best friends Margaret and Letty are in their mid-30s. Margaret has just quit her teaching job to write a novel in Manhattan; Letty, her husband, and her four children are enjoying their first taste of worldly success in Los Angeles. Margaret soon discovers that writing is not as easy as it looks, and Letty finds herself financially over her head in the one-upmanship of L.A. living. Reading Letty's hilarious e-mails, Margaret realizes that a great story is unfolding right in front of her, and she begins a new novel based on her friend's travails. Hungry for more drama in her novel, she pushes Letty deeper and deeper into debt. Christina Schwartz's diabolical All Is Vanity sends up so many different things, you need a list to keep track of them all. Taking a drubbing are: the pretensions of would-be writers ("How many people believe they have a novel fully formed in the backs of their brains ... and are convinced if only they could manage to tear themselves away from much more important work, they would just 'write it up'?"); the consumerist frenzy of L.A. (Letty's realtor tells her that her yard "could be 'emotional' with the right landscaping'"); and, of course, the uses and abuses of female friendship. Schwartz, author of the bestseller Drowning Ruth, draws us in with farce, then changes course and gives us a bittersweet indictment of personal ambition. In the process, she shows herself as a writer both compassionate and hilariously cruel--no mean trick. --Claire Dederer --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
The die was cast for Margaret and Letty back when they were childhood friends, in Pasadena, Calif. "Even in our games, she was always Robin to my Batman, Watson to my Holmes, Boswell to my Johnson," the grown-up Margaret muses in the East Village, where she now lives with her husband, Ted. Margaret has decided to quit teaching English to rich kids and write a meaningful novel. The trouble is, she doesn't have a plot. She strains to invent a hero, Robert Martin, who interminably makes breakfast while remembering Vietnam. But it is more fun to use her computer to exchange e-mails with Letty, a devoted mom whose world is turned upside down when her husband, Michael, lands a big-deal museum job in L.A. and the couple begin spending beyond their means. A while after the reader has figured out that Margaret would rather script Letty's life than Robert's, Margaret gloms onto the weird equation. The deeper Letty sinks into debt and degradation, the better the chances that Margaret can write a bestseller about her and make enough money to save them both. Exit Robert, enter Lexie, based on the Lettie whom Margaret manipulates electronically while feigning a best friend's concern. Schwarz (Drowning Ruth) has a wicked eye for human foibles. Ted's relentless accountancy (he records the purchase of Tic-Tacs), successful writer Sally Sternforth's insufferable ego, the cavalier ways of literary agent Heather Mendelson Blake, Michael's blind ambition: Schwarz nails them all. As funny as it is cruel, the novel sweeps you along on its fast-track slide to hell. While some readers may cavil at a morality play without redemption, others will respect the no-exit spin on ambition and greed.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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And so Margaret sets out to prove her innate specialness by attempting to write a great novel, a task she instinctively knows will be easy for someone of her undiscovered brilliance.
Letty also has something to prove. She's not material (she insists), she only wants what befits her new station in life now that her husband's a somebody. She's merely trying to keep up with their new peer group. If she was material, she avers, she would have opted for something outrageous---like an outdoor sound-system, or Dom Perignon to impress.
So while Margaret eventually abets Letty's misadventures to fulfill her own stalled dreams of "artist"; Letty relies on Margaret to give her permission for her excesses. They are easily culpable in each other's demise; women who, in their collusion, lose the one noble quality they could once lay claim. True friendship.
For me, this tale reads more like a fable or an allegory; a farce that warns against false vanity. I enjoyed both the writing and the clever humor---there were pages about Margaret's family get-togethers that made me laugh out loud. I can see why some here were disappointed (this isn't Drowning Ruth Part Deux), but I admire Schwarz for writing a completely different genre, and in a completely unrecognizable voice.
Essentially, the book is about the downfalls of ambition. Both aspire to be people they aren't, instead of accepting that they're pretty good people (in every way) living pretty good lives. That dissatisfaction with their lives and aspirations to a higher level than they occupy gets both of them in deep trouble.
Although many complained that the book was boring, I couldn't put it down. I laughed out loud at the various ways Margaret avoided actually working on the novel (she not only paints the rented apartment while she's supposed to be writing her novel, but gets all designer about it.) Some of the best dialogue is Margaret with her very practical husband, who is trying to keep her on track. What worked less well for me was Letty and her husband -- Letty is an appealing character, but I found her follies unbelievable. There seemed no way that someone as bright and practical as she is at the beginning could turn into the fool she becomes. And although people do get themselves into scrapes, the sheer speed of her descent is unbelievable, as is her husband's refusal to see what's happening to them.
Still, I have to give the book five stars -- more for the first two hundred pages than the rest, which at times was almost painful to read -- like watching a train wreck. I haven't read Drowning Ruth, but I will definitely go back and read it.