Carlisle Wainwright Cushing is a successful 30-something Boston lawyer and former Texas debutante who is called home to handle her flirtatious and rich mother Ridgely’s upcoming divorce (one in a long string of marital dissolutions). Carlisle runs smack into her old flame and lawyer for the defense, bad-boy Jack Blair. Sparks rekindle, and soon Carlisle’s stable, good-guy fiancé back in Boston, Phillip Granger, is just a distant memory.
Further complicating things: Not only does Carlisle’s mom want her to act as her lawyer, she also begs her to take over the upcoming Willow Creek Symphony Association’s Debutante Ball, which has recently (under her mother’s guidance) gained the reputation for going down in flames. It’s the hundredth annual ball, and Carlisle, a former debutante with some nightmarish memories of her own debut, is determined to say no. Of course, Carlisle ends up roped into it. This is the most entertaining part of Linda Francis Lee’s novel, as Carlisle rounds up a selection of rebellious but mostly moneyed teens of various personalities and backgrounds that she must turn into ladies of grace and culture.
The world Lee fashions for her readers is one where money, looks and family background trump brains and character. “You’ve never seen…girls (and their mothers) scramble so hard to compete,” muses Carlisle, as they vie for the prize of debutante of the year. The girls she has been able to coax into debutante roles are as wide and varied as the Texas landscape, and Lee gives readers plenty of vicarious details. One of the most interesting is rich, spoiled but neglected debutante India Blair, who thinks nothing of persuading her daddy to host her pre-ball party in New York City. Her party is rife with in-your-face opulence: transportation on private planes, a plush bus into the city, and a penthouse with champagne fountains and ice sculptures. Lee ensures that it’s difficult to like India, the proverbial bad girl, including India’s parting line at the party, “Top that, girls!”
At least two of the girls rise to the challenge. Tiki Beeker and Abby Bateman host a party worthy of their Texan roots. They bus 500 guests (including some of the Dallas Cowboy football players) to South Fork Ranch, where guests dine on quail eggs, gold-gilt javelina sausage, rib eye steaks and malt scotch, and country line dance under the stars.
Even as we’re cheering the way India is one-upped, Lee laudably creates empathy for India, keeping her from becoming a despicable cardboard cutout. Her money hasn’t bought her happiness or a close relationship with her estranged mother and too-busy father. The author also shows the reverse snobbery that is just as faulty, in its own way, as India’s. Carlisle’s sister Janice, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist whose daughter Morgan leans toward a punk look, is horrified when Morgan decides to become a debutante to spite her mother. In one flaming argument, Morgan shouts, “I just want to be me. So get over not having Little Miss Intellectual High School Newspaper Editor for a daughter!” Nobody said it was easy to raise teen girls.
The rest of the debutantes include frowzy but oil-rich Betty Bennett (endearing with thick glasses and a “mad-as-a-hatter” mother who has garden gnomes and pink plastic flamingos decorating the yard); the financially strapped and intellectual Ruth Smith, who has her party at the public library and works two jobs to pay for her dress; Nellie Kraft, whose family is new to the area but whose mother has made a name for herself at the Junior League; and Sasha Winthorpe, who of all the girls most looks the part of the classic debutante. If there is any trouble for the reader, it’s remembering who’s who. And with this mercurial group in her charge, Carlisle feels that Jack is the least of her worries.
Of course he’s not. Although Carlisle is smart and pretty, after a few moments with Jack she can’t seem to think straight. Both are engaged, but it doesn’t seem to trouble them much as they are pulled like magnets into hot embraces again and again.
THE EX-DEBUTANTE is a lighthearted romp, and the pages turn quickly as readers vicariously imbibe the lives of young, rich Texas socialites and Carlisle’s own struggle between risking everything for love and settling for safe. From Lee’s humorous phrases (“I couldn’t have been more surprised when you called than if an armadillo had jumped out of my double broiler”) to sex in unexpected places, plenty of escapist, saucy entertainment can be found here.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on April 1, 2008