The Devil Wears Prada, by Lauren Weisberger. Doubleday, 327 pages, $21.95.
The cover of this book by a former assistant to Anna Wintour, the British editor in chief of the American Vogue , proclaims that it is “A Novel,” no doubt in part as a legal precaution. It’s been dangled before us for months as a roman à clef that will unlock the chilly glass doors of Condé Nast Publications to give us an inside look at one of the magazine industry’s most famous and fearsome figures. You’re not being sold the writing talent of the author, Lauren Weisberger, a young, beaming, blond Cornell graduate whose widely reported six-figure advance caused considerable spasms among women in low-paying “glamour” jobs citywide. No, the selling point of The Devil Wears Prada is Ms. Weisberger’s presumably intimate knowledge of her mysterious ex-boss.
She deserves every penny of that advance, if only for her chutzpah: It takes a young woman with considerable inner resources (Ms. Weisberger has been peacefully backpacking in Southeast Asia of late, according to Publishers Weekly ) to burn a career bridge to such utter ashes; to bust out of a coterie that governs so many flattering reviews and glossy profiles; and to violate the tacit code, akin to the NYPD’s “blue wall of silence,” that seems to restrict past and present Vogue employees from really dishing about their circumstances. Think of her as Condé Nast’s whistleblower.
Actually, what she’s produced is less a novel than a single step in a cakewalk of “publication events”: Begin with gossip-column mentions; secure the book prominent placement in a newly erected pantheon, “chick lit” meets “servant lit” (e.g., The Nanny Diaries ); negotiate a lucrative movie deal ( The Devil Wears Prada , which already reads like a screen treatment, complete with copious exposition in the dialogue, has been optioned by Fox 2000); then start again with a sequel.
Sadly, there’s very little about the book that’s truly “novel.” Is it news that a certain editor in chief doesn’t meet her employees’ eyes in the elevator? That she doesn’t encourage eating in the office? The “devil” of the title is Miranda Priestly, the British editor in chief of a Vogue -like magazine called Runway at a Condé Nast–esque company called Elias-Clark. Miranda’s a bit like the White Witch of Narnia, only without the Turkish delight; a “human vulture” who, like a bat, never sleeps; a size-zero who voraciously devours bacon and ice-cream sundaes; a martinet who fires off over-the-top commands like a machine gun, ending each one not with “please” or “thank you,” but “that’s all.” And she’s funny-in the way a cartoon is funny. (In the movie version, the actress will have to channel Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. ) This is just not the dishy exposé one was devoutly hoping for.
Then there’s the heroine, Andrea Sachs, a Scrabble-loving ingénue and Brown graduate who almost literally stumbles into a job at Runway (the role cries out for Reese Witherspoon or Kate Hudson) because she thinks it will bring her closer to her goal of working for The New Yorker . (Andrea’s no snob, though: She also likes reading Cosmo -which, incidentally, would have been an ideal venue for an excerpt of The Devil Wears Prada .) Despite some limp and loose plot threads about love interests and a friend in crisis, the twisted tutor/tutee relationship between Miranda and Andrea is the main business of the book.
There’s a moment in the narrative, before her boss appears in the office, when Andrea and her co-assistant, Emily, are raking through the lavish corporate Christmas gifts Miranda has received, that recalls Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca (now that was a novel!). For a brief while, the sensible Andrea is like Du Maurier’s nameless mouseburger heroine, fingering the mistress of the house’s silky underthings-in this case Miranda’s custom-made Chanel white cotton Lycra hotpants-with wonderment and incredulity. The absent Miranda has Rebecca’s mythical power, and Emily is a kind of Mrs. Danvers, urging Andrea over the precipice, the metaphorical feminine suicide of caring about designer clothes and draconian diets.
Interestingly, however, The Devil Wears Prada’ s Max De Winter is not one of the caricatured male leads (a long-suffering boyfriend named Alex and a red-herring love interest with “seafoam” eyes named Christian Collingsworth), but a different master entirely: Work. Though Andrea may be a Banana Republic–clad Robin Hood, distributing expense-account Starbucks lattes to the homeless and bonding with the elevator guy, the delivery guy and the limo driver, it’s understood that one day she’ll leave the other underlings far behind. She has ambition, steely dedication and a latent Machiavellian streak. (“You don’t want her to die,” she thinks to herself about the satanic editor in chief. “Because if she does, you lose all hope of killing her yourself. And that would be a shame.”) Therein lies the suspense-which, like the book’s plot twists, has sort of a flat, Choose Your Own Adventure quality: Will Andrea tell Miranda to go fuck herself … or will she become her mentor’s clone?
Unfortunately, discovering the answer is less compelling than trying to match fictionalized characters to their real-life counterparts (the flamboyant Runway staffer Nigel, for example, seems inspired by Vogue ‘s Andre Leon Talley; Ms. Priestly’s third husband is tagged “B-DAD,” for “Blind, Deaf and Dumb”) or casing the truly staggering depths of magazine frivolity: the aforementioned gifts, the outrageous tasks, the contents of the fashion closet, the décor at a fancy party. One imagines the author’s rapid-fire note-taking disgorged in a sort of quasi-literary bulimia (“Millions of girls would die for your job,” the heroine is repeatedly scolded), perhaps during an all-nighter. Andrea is perennially sleep-deprived, and maybe the author was as well: The phrase “it wouldn’t gel in my addled brain” appears twice in nine pages, and you can expect lots of sentences like “Shit! Another pair of seven-hundred dollar shoes sacrificed to my complete and utter lack of grace under pressure.” A few trenchant social observations liven up the book, as when Andrea muses on the “Paranoid Turnaround,” bitchy gossip followed by rapid self-erasure (“one of my favorite workday pastimes became watching my colleagues scramble to negate whatever blasphemy they’d uttered”). But all the bits and pieces don’t add up to a real novel.
The publisher seems ready to concede this. “Welcome to … the most diverting temptation … of the season” reads a promotional letter from Doubleday’s executive editor. But this is not a little prose sugarplum; it’s a bitter, carcinogenic pink packet of Sweet ‘n’ Low. In recent interviews, Ms. Wintour has been asked about The Devil Wears Prada, and her frigid response has stirred up further media interest. Poor Ms. Wintour-she’s really carrying the entire book. And that may be too much of a burden for one editor’s very slender shoulders to bear.
Alexandra Jacobs has moved to Los Angeles.