Smother Her in Kisses-Native Writer Pegs the City

Beautiful Bodies , by Laura Shaine Cunningham. Washington Square Press, 360 pages, $24.

Women in their 30’s-economically independent, yet emotionally vulnerable-convening to get drunk and bemoan their lot is now the default trope of modern urban fiction. So it’s no surprise that, at first glance, Laura Shaine Cunningham’s debut novel provokes wariness. All the grim harbingers are there: the title, with its winking suggestion of sex; the artfully designed cover (three high-cheekboned sylphs pensively blow smoke under a margarita-green border); the potentially airheaded plot (something about a dinner party?) …. Surely the local Barnes & Noble megastore has custom-designed a special section for such books, and surely this one should linger there unpurchased.

Except it shouldn’t.

Indeed, Beautiful Bodies so thoroughly transcends the chirpy, dissolute trash that has begun to give young female writers a bad name that reading it makes one want to shower Ms. Cunningham with kisses-and not of the air variety. Like the pastel cocktails that the aforementioned single women in their 30’s are supposed to be so fond of swilling, the book goes down easy but is deceptively potent. And unlike the many superficial pretenders out there, it’s a true novel of the city. This reviewer brought it along on a weekend trip through the rolling hills of Virginia, as a kind of talisman against the unfamiliar countryside. The charm worked.

Ms. Cunningham’s story strings together six women like pearls, like the girders of a bridge. She observes, Mary McCarthy–style, a group of friends who first met when they lived in a “women’s residence” called Theresa House, a sort of latter-day Barbizon, and are now scattered throughout various neighborhoods as they pursue different “glamour” professions, evanescent men and corporeal ideals.

To say that these women identify with their real estate is to understate the case vastly. Jessie the journalist, the “hostile” hostess of the party, occupies a messy Noho loft-with-view whose unfinished state so externalizes her own scarred emotional and physical life (she’s had a mastectomy) that her e-mail address is actually rawspace@earthlink.net.

Sue Carol, a boozy Southern actress who’s walked out on her unfaithful husband, lives in the Apthorp-esque “Albatrope” on the Upper West Side, which she nicknames the Albatross because, being rent-stabilized, it cannot be abandoned. Nina, a chronic dieter who owns a chain of nail salons, has temporarily vacated her 77th Street seraglio for her childhood home, the airless Confederated Hill Project on Mosholu Parkway in the Bronx, to tend to her ailing mother. And Lisbeth, a wispy part-time model and painter, clings to a rent-controlled floor-through in a townhouse on 70th Street that looks out on a maple tree: “It was not just an apartment, it was more than shelter, it was the shell on a snail; it was her second, armored skin that separated her from all manner of harm …. It was her natural habitat.” All these women are literally and figuratively encapsulated by the places they live, tagged by their apartment numbers.

Then there’s Martha, manipulative, selfish and liposuctioned, a real-estate broker who lives in one of those “high-rises lit at night, like vertical bar codes,” on the lower edge of the Upper East Side; who regards New York as “[a] toy city, a board game of spires and artificial-appearing green squares of roof gardens”; and finally Claire, who remains in Theresa House, an itinerant bassoonist whose unexpected pregnancy they are gathering in Jessie’s place to celebrate. Ambivalently.

And it is ambivalence-the idea of dueling “values”-that forms the mellow core of Beautiful Bodies . Its little universe also calls to mind Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway : There’s Jessie’s twittery party-planning; the heroine named Claire (like Clarissa)-a “portable person … traveling light”; and the fact that this very feminine narrative is contained within a single day.

The novel rattles with money. It’s filled with economies, calculations, trade-offs, shopping, getting, spending, doing without and brand names; someone is always carrying a Kate Spade or Ralph Lauren purse, or donning Prada wedgies, or looking at an upscale vodka ad. Ms. Cunningham beautifully captures the way women are both liberated and trapped by their fiscal independence; how they use designer objects and material possessions to try and stuff the emotional voids left by absent paramours. Repeatedly and tellingly, love is confused with a material object, a soft expensive fabric. Flush with the memory of a one-night stand, Jessie feels “wrapped in cashmere,” while Lisbeth, bereft in the aftermath of an aborted affair (with a married man who wore nice shirts), reclines fitfully on a $100 pillow encased in 380-thread-count cotton. Meanwhile, Martha swathes herself in a $6,000 shawl made of endangered shatoosh.

One of the book’s canniest creations is a $200 prix fixe all-organic restaurant called Vert-the name suggests garden-fresh fare, of course, but also the color of cash. Sue Carol waitresses at Vert (in a Versace uniform); Martha, who euphemizes the word “money” by translating it into foreign languages-“muchos dollaros”-is the only one who can afford to eat there. A stark inverse relationship is drawn between material wealth and fertility. Locked in a cold marriage in her sterile penthouse, Martha is desperate for the child that the unmarried Claire has casually conceived-an expensive fertility doctor has told her that she can only have a baby with another woman’s eggs. Though perpetually ironic, Ms. Cunningham is never heartless; that’s the key to her success.

My affection for this book (and I am prejudiced here) has something to do with the fact that it’s a novel of New York written by a native New Yorker. The literature has been thoroughly clogged by arrivistes and suburbanites blinking in wide-eyed wonderment as they confront the city; it’s a rare pleasure to have an offering from someone who understands the peculiar malaise and world-weariness that affects those of us who were born here and raised here and who watch all the rest of you come and go, offering your own “authoritative” take on what we feel is fundamentally ours. (See also Jennifer Belle’s under-reviewed and underappreciated High Maintenance , another recent novel about women’s love affair with real estate.)

It must be said, the author’s hand is surest when rendering individual portraits of the women, while the beautiful bodies are still in orbit, before they gather around the “sun”-the somewhat annoying, mythically carefree Claire-and ultimately collapse into themselves. But that opinion surely reflects simple regret that Beautiful Bodies had to conclude. At the risk of sounding like a hired blurbist, this novel really is luminous and dark, funny and sad, airy and filled with meaning.

Alexandra Jacobs writes The Eight-Day Week for The Observer.