Christina Schwarz, author of DROWNING RUTH (a novel I
particularly liked), has a winner in her sophomore effort ALL IS
Margaret and Letty, now in their 30s, have been best friends since
childhood. Married and living on opposite coasts, they are each
struggling with an identity crisis fueled by personal ambition.
They continue, even at a distance, to support each other via
expensive phone calls and then lengthy email messages.
Letty is raising her children and grappling with the upper middle
class existence and trappings of her husband's new curatorial
position at the Otis Museum --- struggling because, while he has
the job, he has only the promise of the salary to match the
lifestyle. So on very little money, Letty is refurbishing a home,
forking out big cash for haircuts and throwing lavish
Margaret, sure that she was destined to be the author of the next
great American novel, quits her job as a teacher at an all-female
preparatory school to devote her time to writing. She soon
realizes, however, that her dream is not an easily achieved
reality. Despite her husband's penny pinching and constant
reminders of their financial conditions, Margaret finds all means
of distraction to keep her from writing, including painting the
house, hanging out in coffee bars and, ironically, writing classes.
When she does finally begin to write, the result is less than
stellar. Her main character Robert lacks, well, character. He and
his tale are anything but engaging and her writing quickly goes
nowhere. But Margaret has advertised to everyone that she has taken
the year off to produce a book. She MUST produce a book.
Meanwhile in Los Angeles, Letty is confronting her own problems.
Her husband's rise to a prestigious position dictates that she must
create an upscale home and present the appearance of wealth and
class for his new colleagues. Living a lavish existence comes at a
cost and Letty's lifestyle becomes an example of consumerism run
amok. Desperate for a plot, Margaret begins to see that, with some
slight modifications, Letty's story is the story Margaret has been
looking for all along. The crossroads of their desires become the
fodder for Margaret's novel and she begins to manipulate Letty in
unseemly ways. Rather than advising Letty to cut back and avoid
being caught up in the pretension that surrounds her new L.A.
acquaintances, Margaret encourages her to live high off the hog ---
with disastrous results.
ALL IS VANITY is an exploration of the dangers of human desire and
greed. Schwarz's telltale wit is ever-present as she rolls out
Margaret and Letty's intertwined fates with dark humor and empathy.
Margaret, even in her manipulations, is a likable character, sadly
misled by her pride and ego. And Letty is the victim of her need to
"measure up." The entire time I was reading the book I found myself
saying "no, no, don't do that" and yet oddly satisfied when they
did the very thing I discouraged them from doing. To her credit,
Schwarz does not wrap up her story in a neat resolution. Letty and
Margaret, bruised and banged up, friendship shattered, tumble to a
Reviewed by Roberta O'Hara on January 20, 2011
All Is Vanity