Books: Woman on the verge of a social breakdown

A Certain Age by Tama Janowitz Bloomsbury pounds 12.99
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The Independent Culture
A weekend in the Hamptons, summer retreat for wealthy New Yorkers: the new novel by Tama Janowitz opens in a setting which promises gentle comedy, perhaps even farce. Her heroine, Florence, finds herself relegated to a bedroom little larger than a broom cupboard, which locks from the outside; it soon becomes clear that she has been invited by her hostess, Natalie, to act as unpaid help during a swanky party the following night.

But Florence's sardonic observations of Natalie's self-indulgent existence, including a home visit from her aromatherapist, give way to something darker. Within 24 hours of her arrival, Florence has been raped by Natalie's husband and unwittingly caused the hospitalisation of their unappealing daughter, Claudia. Fearing a second assault by Natalie's husband, Florence locks him in her bedroom - alert readers will already have clocked that there had to be a reason for that exterior lock - and is ejected from the party by her furious hostess.

These events mark the beginning of a downward spiral which gradually transforms Florence from a desirable blonde 30-something into a woman on the edge of society. Friends desert her, dates dry up, money runs out after she invests the last of her cash in a non-existent restaurant project. Janowitz, who established her credentials as a wry observer of the Manhattan scene with Slaves of New York, tells the story of Florence's decline in a series of scenes which expose the emptiness of the world she inhabits - or so we are invited to think.

What this translates into on the page is an endless parade of price tags. Each time Florence changes her clothes or her make-up, Janowitz lists her expenditure on each item, from cleanser to nail polish. Money runs through the novel as its most persistent theme, with Florence assessing what the other characters are worth as she recklessly accumulates debts she can never hope to pay off. But even as she pampers herself, Florence is curiously detached from her lovely face and body.

The truth, says Janowitz, is that her heroine "wasn't vain. Her facade was her property. It was an item she possessed, which she groomed and dressed in order to achieve her goals." These are to meet a rich man and marry him, to join the ranks of the very people she affects to despise, with their penthouses in Manhattan and holiday homes in Europe.

"Wasn't that the only dream for women at the end of the twentieth century, even for those who claimed to want other things?" Obviously not, which raises the question of whose voice is articulating these quaint ideas. Is it Janowitz, using Florence as a mouthpiece for her own disgust at how little the world has changed? The novel is obviously intended as a critique of consumerism, and the warped values which push a college- educated woman like Florence into the pursuit of such unworthy aims. The parallels with an earlier age are explicit, with Janowitz invoking Edith Wharton in a way that suggests she intends her own heroine as a reincarnation of Lily Bart, tragic heroine of The House of Mirth.

But that novel is a much more subtle, ironic treatment of what a woman has to do to survive. Exhausted and defeated, Lily never loses her dignity even when, like Florence at the end of A Certain Age, she is in danger of losing her life. In Janowitz's novel, the cause of Florence's problems is not conspicuous consumption or an uncaring society which provides few choices for women; it is a childlike refusal to take control of her life, combined with terminally low self-esteem.

The sex in A Certain Age is always a means of exchange, something Florence trades not very successfully in the hope of receiving a proposal of marriage. She is not interested in the men she sleeps with, nor they in her, but this is hardly surprising in the context of her single-minded determination to view them as meal tickets. The novel is not so much satire as polemic, and it is not even clear what Janowitz is trying to tell us. The rich are shallow? Life is tough for single women in New York? These are not exactly revelations, and they are in any case undercut by the inescapable conclusion that Janowitz-as-Florence is the author of her own misfortunes.