cover image A Certain Age

A Certain Age

Tama Janowitz. Doubleday Books, $23.95 (336pp) ISBN 978-0-385-49610-0

A sordid, contemporary rendition of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, this unflaggingly downbeat comedy of manners charts the cruelties visited upon fashionable Manhattan women seeking husbands and social status before the clock runs out. Like Wharton's Lily Bart, Janowitz's protagonist is, in the words of a society gossip column, ""an aging filly about town,"" whose head spins with fantasies of a fashionable mate, flights on the Concorde, a 15-bedroom apartment furnished with ""Biedermeier, French club chairs, Mies van der Rohe."" Shedding money from her rapidly dwindling trust fund, Florence Collins blazes a promiscuous, startlingly self-destructive path from the Hampton estate of her all too ephemeral friends, Nathalie and John de Jongh, whose daughter she carelessly allows into the ocean unattended (an event that leads to the child's eventual death from pneumonia) to vacuous Manhattan cocktail parties, art openings and baby showers. Vying for her attention are a circle of men, from investment banker John de Jongh, who forces himself on Florence while his wife sleeps nearby, then persuades her to invest her last $25,000 in a hopeless restaurant venture; the Italian playboy Rafaello, who visits her for quick sex and introduces her to crack cocaine; and Darryl, an earnest lawyer and advocate for the homeless whom she rejects for his lack of funds. What poignancy the novel offers is continuously undercut by the author's arch contempt for virtually every character, particularly the beautiful and insipid figure of Florence herself, and the novel's other protagonist, the city of New York, whose denizens are ""in the convulsive, terminal stages of a lengthy disease, the disease of envy whose side effects were despair and self-hatred."" At one point, as Florence flips through a profile of a pampered starlet named Ibis in a glossy magazine, Janowitz (The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group) writes, ""If Florence had seen Ibis on the street, she would have strangled her quite happily."" By the end of this relentlessly cynical tale, readers may feel the same way about Florence. Author tour. (July)