Me Times Three , by Alex Witchel. Alfred A. Knopf, 304 pages, $22.
“Funny business, a woman’s career. The things you drop on your way up the ladder, so you can move faster-you forget you’ll need them again when you get back to being a woman. That’s one career all females have in common, whether we like it or not: being a woman. Sooner or later we’ve got to work at it.” Are we back with Bette Davis in All About Eve , smoking sardonically in a broken-down car and telling it how it is? In 50 years, have we come full circle? After feminism, the backlash and a post-ironic assimilation of the two, who is there beyond Bridget Jones to make sense of women’s lives? How about Alex Witchel, whose first novel, Me Times Three , is set in the world of women’s magazines in 1980’s New York? (Film rights have been sold to Miramax, Gwyneth Paltrow is slated to star.) Promising the latest twists in relationships between men and women, the novel probes the importance of dumbing down. A promising strategy for women at home or at the office, in light fiction or in reality? Hail! The restyled goddess of wisdom: Athena, the soothingly silly version.
Ms. Witchel blesses her 26-year-old narrator with one great gift: She is smart. That’s not exactly the same as being clever, which can be intimidating, especially for men. More importantly, it has absolutely nothing whatever to do with being intellectual, which is completely beyond the pale in either gender. Sandra Berlin was sensitized to these nuances from an early age, when her mother inconsiderately pursued a career as a clinical psychologist, perversely experimenting on rats instead of coming home to cook dinner. Her father-more bad luck-was a Jewish history professor “traditionally chattier about Trotsky than anything having to do with his family.” And so Sandra grew up in the suburb of Green Hills, desperately aspiring to a WASPy lifestyle and painfully aware that it could only be hers by proxy-through marriage.
From high school, there’s a candidate. John Buckingham Ross-Bucky-is rich, blond, blue-eyed American royalty with just a hint of Benjamin Franklin about his forehead. He has delivered the right lines, right on cue, for “nine years of patty-cake bliss.” And Sandra has already planned the Persian rugs and crystal vases that will adorn the spacious suburban home where she will raise a family and write children’s books-“a perfectly contained activity that didn’t require commuting”-how hard could it be? She has even made a start (Ms. Witchel periodically provides damaging samples of Sandra’s creative prose, lisping letters home from Dorothy on the yellow brick road). Fortunately, Sandra has a day job at Jolie! magazine, and boy, does she need it: The veil falls and Bucky is exposed as “a human copy machine” with not one but three fiancées, all promised kids, a house and a dog named Snowball.
Despite graduating from Yale University and rising to become Jolie! ‘s arts editor, Sandra insists that she knows “nothing about art,” and this seems wholly credible as she fills the empty shelves in her new office with “giveaway piles of newly published books.” But only the smartest of women know how to play dumb. And even the smartest have something to learn from Sandra. There’s the time when Bucky saunters up to the pool shouldering Norman Mailer’s Ancient Evenings , and Sandra innocently suggests that he would do better with The World According to Garp . Then there’s the time she climbs into her gay best friend’s convertible, Walt. “As in Disney?” she asks. “As in Whitman,” he says, smiling. “Ah,” she sighs. “Very fancy.” Big mistake, that smile. Best of all is her dinner date with Mark Lewis, “the most famous art writer in America.” As he bites into a mocha meringue, tears fill his bright blue eyes and spill onto his cheeks. “It’s such a Proustian taste for me,” he explains. Note that Sandra does not reply, “Remind me to tell you about the time I looked into the heart of an artichoke.” No. Not the smallest of mellifluous sneers curls her lips as she opens wide her own lovely eyes and asks to hear more.
The biggest problem here is that the reader is only half in on the act. Ms. Witchel is clear from the start that Sandra is not going to choose between career and personal life: She’s going to work her butt off and have both. As Bucky puts it, in a rare moment of insight, “You fight for what you get, and I admire that.” It’s a slog. “For me boys had always been like dessert, not an everyday occurrence, but a sometime thing, a reward,” says Sandra, virtuously. Occasionally she drops her guard and reveals exhilarating weaponry: In Saks, Sandra’s “most forbidding New York tone” and her fantastically dangerous smile are suddenly unleashed on staff who ignore her friend with AIDS. Yet we are still subjected to page after page of Ooops! Silly little me! musings and made to feel as gullible as the next trick in a tuxedo. Through Sandra, Ms. Witchel wrong-foots us with nonsense like, “Mary Ann White looked like her name.” She mixes her metaphors with abandon,describing “a womb of luxury, all flowers and fabric and crystal chandeliers.” She wears us down with truisms: “Almost every woman falls in love with a gay man at some point …. But the ugly part of that particular love affair is that the man does not desire you and never will.” And when she really gets down to basics, it’s impossible not to feel short-changed: “[I]t’s a man’s hands on you, in all his clumsy grasping, wanting you-that is the part of being a woman that can’t be satisfied otherwise.”
So what’s a girl to do? If there’s an answer in Me Times Three , it can only be inferred. In the end, Ms. Witchel rewards Sandra the ersatz airhead with a better job at a better publication, Manhattan Week , where the office is “filled with people my age running around in jeans, holding huge cups of coffee as if they were pulling all-nighters for finals,” and where she may be able to use her children’s stories as material for a column about New York life. (If scoring a byline with fairy tales pushes verisimilitude to the limit, remember that the best writers are not necessarily the best columnists-and vice versa.) There’s also the promise of blossoming romance with Mark Lewis, even if he is puny and alarmingly clever. These obstacles won’t stand in her way. Sandra, of all people, can beguile a genius-and here she has the edge on all those “spunky” Judith Krantz heroines. Almost without stopping to think, she asks Mark to insert a joke or two in his brilliant “arty” article, just so she doesn’t fall asleep. Hear that man purr! Even when she is set to live happily ever after, Sandra can’t resist confiding a final piece of disinformation: “Be who you are.” As if. Bring back Bette Davis and her smoke-choked honesty: “I wish someone would tell me about me.”
Ruth Scurr is a British Academy post-doctoral fellow at King’s College, Cambridge .