Our Critic's Tip Sheet on Current Reading: 'It' Girls; Manhattan Schoolgirls; and a Murdered Medici Princess


It’s spring at last, and girls are pushing up everywhere like daisies.

 

PLAYWRIGHT THERESA REBECK showcases a Brooklyn trio in her lively, entertaining and accurately titled first novel, Three Girls and Their Brother (Shaye Areheart, $23.95), a romp through the looking-glass world of fashion shoots and instant celebrity. Amelia (14), Polly (17) and Daria (18), red-haired beauties all, granddaughters of the celebrated literary critic Leo Heller, rocket into the limelight when The New Yorker features them in a photo spread. (Remember that vampy portrait of the Hilton sisters in the “Next Generation” issue back in 1999? ) Suddenly It Girls, the Heller sisters slide precipitously toward notoriety when Amelia (the brains of the bunch) bites a lecherous mega movie star who’s been groping her shamelessly. Before their 15-year-old brother, Philip, rides to the rescue, the entire sleazy showbiz apparatus, from hairstylist to super-agent to chat-show host, has been exposed to Ms. Rebeck’s satiric scrutiny.

If pressed, I could find fault (the first-person narration, a task taken up by each sibling in turn, is too often Holden Caulfield-inspired; the climax is cartoonish), but the truth is I was charmed—and I won’t be the last.

 

SHIFT GEARS FOR Christine Schutt’s All Souls (Harcourt, $22), a very literary look at a private girls’ school on the Upper East Side. The class of 1997 is fitfully preoccupied with the illness of Astra Dell, a saintly senior—“She’s perfect”—whose cancer should show her classmates that their little problems don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Everything is fitful in this novel, especially the jump-cut narrative technique, flitting restlessly from one pampered or troubled adolescent girl to the next, with anxious or oblivious parents and self-absorbed or stunted teachers rounding out the cast. Ms. Schutt, whose first novel, Florida, was a finalist for the 2004 National Book Award, seems morbidly eager to make her prose poetically fresh and provocative—a bit like one of her girls, Car, here fretting precociously: “Originality was hard to come by on Fifth Avenue, walking north, park side, under the dark overhang of trees in an odd and balmy patch of late October.”

A sample of Ms. Schutt waxing lyrical about Manhattan’s yummy mummies: “There they all were, the young women in oversize barn coats and tight pants and narrow sling-backs they wore sockless. Such were the signs of ease. Wrist-size ankles, bones, bones, blushed faces, woodsy hair. Pedigreed dogs, rare breeds. See the chocolate Sussex spaniel in his puddled leash outside the store?”

 

THE BRONZINO PORTRAIT (circa 1558) of Isabella de Medici at age 16 shows a confident and knowing lass—an It Girl all the way. Daughter of Cosimo, Duke of Florence, Isabella achieved in her 20’s a degree of independence unthinkable in any other young woman in Renaissance Italy. The story of her adventurous and ultimately tragic career (her brutish, cuckold husband arranged a fatal “accident”) is told with brio by Caroline P. Murphy in Murder of a Medici Princess (Oxford, $24.95), a biography that combines scholarly precision with page-turning intrigue.

Our Critic's Tip Sheet on Current Reading: 'It' Girls; Manhattan Schoolgirls; and a Murdered Medici Princess