THE SPARE WIFE
By Alex Witchel
Alfred A. Knopf, 286 pages, $23.95
The characters in Alex Witchel’s new novel, The Spare Wife, have all the familiar markings of chick-lit New Yorkers: magazine jobs, plastic surgery, personal trainers, expensive apartments, adulterous love affairs, baby lust. But they’re not quite the quirkily carefree civilians of Sex and the City or Bergdorf Blondes: They inhabit an aging social stratum where “you [can] stand in a Park Avenue apartment and see the values of social power rise and fall above each coiffed head as clearly as if you were looking at the board at the stock exchange.” It’s a world of tedious, obligatory dinner parties where “[they] all might as well have been fucking each other forever … you didn’t just go home bored with your wife after one of these shindigs, you went home bored with every broad in the room.”
One wishes that a book about such humorless people would at least be humorous, especially as it adds itself to the ranks of a crowded genre. This one, for the most part, is not.
Indeed, Ms. Witchel’s second novel—her first was Me Times Three (2002)—betrays little trace of today’s photo-happy, almost self-consciously ironic young socialites, most of whom seem to have few aspirations beyond their own handbag line. These characters have more at stake: They’re desperate and calculating, concerned with floral arrangements, their fertility doctor and with holding onto the husbands and lovers who are slipping through their fingers.
One of Ms. Witchel’s women habitually reads the major papers front-to-back on the day of a dinner party, after which she “[spends] the evening unleashing her worldly knowledge onto the distinguished men in her midst—who had not only read the same papers but had created some of the news themselves.” If another “had had children instead of homes, she could have hung on [to her marriage] more tightly.”
The men are the movers and shakers: talented but morally useless creatures who can hardly be held responsible for their cheating ways.
THE SPARE WIFE does have its funny moments, such as when the villainess—pretty 25-year-old social climber Babette Steele—recalls dating an older Argentinian banker who liked her to pee on him. “Each time she did, he bought her a piece of Louis Vuitton luggage.” But Ms. Witchel’s observations, while witty and true, often feel well tread, and more often depressing, particularly when they involve paranoia about aging.
The young women here are used as “window dressing for glitzy PR events”; they’re not usually invited to hard-core social gatherings lest they ruin a marriage. Of the book’s heroine, Ponce Morris (after Ponce de Leon, of course, discoverer of the fountain of youth), we learn: “There was absolutely no one better at throwing a party than Ponce, everyone knew that—like they knew the best plastic surgeon for the upper eyelids, as opposed to the best plastic surgeon for the lower eyelids.”
Ponce is a 42-year-old former model who married rich once her gigs started drying up “on the back end” of 23. Her older husband has divorced her and died by the time the book starts, and she’s recovering from the years of party-throwing he demanded by doing volunteer legal work (a wise shrink had once handed her The Feminine Mystique and convinced her to go back to school), watching sports (a passion the reader never quite buys) and serving as chief confidante to her couple friends—the men and the women, separately. All around her, people make the mistakes she has already made. She’s their gorgeous, unflappable Band Aid.
As a protagonist, Ponce is hard to relate to: “[Her] wide blue eyes dominated her perfectly heart-shaped face, and her skin was the poreless movie-star variety that doesn’t exist in nature except when it does, marking its owner for eternal damnation by the bitter acne-scarred multitudes.” She was even more stunning in her youth, when she was “one of the last Aryans signed up by Eileen Ford before popular taste went ethnic.” As self-reflective as Ponce often seems in comparison to her friends, the reader often wishes for a more critical, or at least funny, protagonist with whom to journey through a relentlessly superficial universe.
Ponce’s best friend, “Shawsie,” is married to the incorrigible womanizer Robin Brody—who penned a hit novel in the 1980’s that’s been getting him laid ever since.
Shawsie labors by day as a celebrity wrangler at Boothby’s Review, which “is the kind of magazine The New Yorker might be if it won the lottery and got a face-lift, a younger beau, and a place in Rio.” The villainous Babette—whose name marks her as a ridiculous caricature of vapid, busty youth, the embodiment of everything the other female characters have lost—is an editorial assistant at the magazine. She’s busy trying to sleep her way to the top of New York’s social heap when she happens upon evidence that our heroine, Ponce, is engaged in an affair with the city’s married hot-shot fertility doctor, Neil Grossman.
Naturally, Babette plans to write an exposé. When Ponce and her loyal friends find out, a struggle ensues between young and old(er), naïve and powerful, morally derailed and morally bankrupt—and more than one character’s precariously tethered universe crumbles. The latter part of the book is propulsive, but the revenge fantasy played out at the end is too overblown, perhaps even too cruel, to be satisfying.
Alex Witchel’s novel is over-the-top, to be sure. It’s saying something about New York, and about gender relations, and about the mutual distaste the city breeds between the young and the old, who each have what the other wants. But if the higher echelons of New York society are really still this sexist, ageist and desperate, there’s little humor or satisfaction to be found in acknowledging it—at least precious little that can be found in this book. By the end I just felt exhausted, as though I’d spent an evening engaged in enervating small talk at an obligatory event.
Meredith Bryan is a reporter at The Observer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.