I gravitate naturally to novels with a media background --- partly to relive my own deadline-ridden days as an editor and writer, and partly just to see if authors get the facts right.
Kate White definitely does. We were colleagues at Mademoiselle, and I watched with pleasure as she rose to become editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan and started writing bestselling mysteries. I can testify that the Cosmo slogan “fun fearless female” applies to White herself as well as to Phoebe Hall, protagonist of THE SIXES.
"It’s sexy but not totally dominated by girl-seeks-guy syndrome. And it's greatly enlivened by the author’s familiarity with the investigative skills required of both a reporter and an amateur detective."
Phoebe is a high-powered 42-year-old who specializes in celebrity journalism (the question she’s most often asked: What’s Angelina really like?), and White uses her authoritative knowledge of the New York publishing world to good effect as she plunges us into Phoebe’s life and psyche. She’s fearless, all right (I can think of few things scarier than interviewing, say, Charlie Sheen or Lindsay Lohan), but lately her life hasn’t been much fun. Her longtime boyfriend just walked, and her career has been derailed by charges of plagiarism (it turns out that a careless assistant’s notes were mislabeled).
So she leaves Manhattan for a small Pennsylvania college whose president, Glenda Johns, is a longtime friend. She’ll sub for a professor who’s on maternity leave, teaching nonfiction writing for the fall semester --- and hoping meanwhile to rehabilitate her tarnished image, heal her heart, and think up an idea for a new book as hot as her last, Hollywood’s Badass Girls.
Given a quiet, leafy campus, that sounds like a plan. But by late October, Lyle College is buzzing with the news of a missing student, a crisis that escalates when the girl’s body --- and later, that of her boyfriend, who was assumed to have left town --- is found in the local river. Foul play is suspected.
At the same time, Glenda asks Phoebe (whom she describes as “brilliant as getting people to spill”) to conduct an unofficial investigation into The Sixes, a secret female society on campus that the dead girl belonged to. This immediately triggers Phoebe’s memories of being bullied at boarding school by a similar group, and though she’s frightened, she goes ahead (told you she was fearless). She also gets dangerously embroiled in the murder inquiry, despite admonitions from the local police and the campus security force.
There’s a lot of page-turning, nail-biting action. White is a skillful plotter who makes you suspect the wrong people, as any respectable whodunit writer must, and she keeps Phoebe busy. She is stalked by the sinister Sixes, chased through the woods by parties unknown after finding a friend dead (murder number three), and forced to extricate herself from a pit in an abandoned gristmill. Somehow she also grabs a few moments to teach --- in her classes she raises such timely issues as print journalism vs. web content --- and hook up with an attractive psych professor.
Phoebe, in other words, is a classic multi-tasker: independent, successful, courageous, nosy and clever, not to mention fashion conscious (pencil skirts and animal prints!). She imports some of her privileged urban lifestyle to Pennsylvania --- her espresso maker, for example, and a penchant for lighting sandalwood candles and serving after-dinner liqueurs from a butler’s table (what is a butler’s table, anyway?). She also brings along her smart big-city mouth. I especially enjoyed her less charitable comments (“The guy looks as if he’s starting to rust,” she says of an overly tanned security cop), and I wish White had made her cute sleuth even edgier and more sarcastic. Truthfully, I wasn’t much engaged by the romantic subplot --- the guy, and the sex, are too perfect to be plausible. The link between Phoebe and Glenda is more like it. They bonded as outsiders at boarding school, scholarship students in a sea of rich girls, and their relationship rings true.
These two women, like the author, exercise considerable power in their respective fields, and that is clearly the subtext of THE SIXES. On one side White sets Phoebe and Glenda (who, by the way, is 5’11”, African-American, and a pretty chic dresser herself). Opposing them is a professor of women’s studies, Val Porter (who inspires some of Phoebe’s snarkiest ruminations: “Val’s fashion style could only be described as high priestess meets seductress --- lots of crushed velvet, jangling bracelets, and deeply scooped necklines….”), and the conspiratorial Sixes (“They band together almost like a pack of wolves,” says a psychologist Phoebe consults. “I call it girl power gone wild”). It is as if White is trying to carve out space for womanly strength that is neither feminist earth mother nor nasty adolescent schemer.
But that makes THE SIXES sound more like a scholarly thesis than what it is: a sassy, fast-paced read. It’s spooky but won’t give you nightmares like Stephen King's novels. It’s sexy but not totally dominated by girl-seeks-guy syndrome. And it's greatly enlivened by the author’s familiarity with the investigative skills required of both a reporter and an amateur detective.
Come to think of it, I bet Kate White might know --- and Phoebe Hall could find out --- what Angelina is really like….
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on June 28, 2011