From Witchel (Girls Only, 1997), famed and feared for her acerbic profiles in the New York Times, a surprisingly bland first novel about life on the media fast track in Manhattan.
Sure, there are some good lines about Jolie, the slick women’s magazine where Sandra Berlin holds down a just-above-entry-level job in 1988. “Apparently, pictures of models jumping in the air wearing five-dollar T-shirts and three-thousand-dollar organza skirts were just what the world had been waiting for,” Sandra wisecracks, and her descriptions of Jolie’s editors and her fellow grunts are equally amusing. But they’re also generic, as is almost everything else here, from Sandra’s Jewish suburban background to her WASP fiancé Bucky, who turns out to be simultaneously engaged to two other women, to the inevitable gay friend who confesses halfway through the book that he’s dying of AIDS (a heavily foreshadowed development). Witchel’s description of people’s attitude toward the disease seems awfully naive for the sophisticated circles her heroine moves in. Similarly, although Sandra repeatedly describes herself as smart, she seldom acts that way. Would even the most self-centered workaholic have been taken in by Bucky all these years? Would even the most insecure single girl (Sandra’s 26 but talks as though she’s pushing 40) ever contemplate taking him back? And what except contrived plot complications keeps her apart from Mr. Perfect, art writer Mark Lewis? Yes, we get it: Sandra is intellectually gifted, but dumb about the Things That Really Matter. Witchel has acquired husband Frank Rich’s habit of announcing the blindingly obvious as though she were the first to think of it. “Love, real love, contagious and messy, vanquished all [the rules],” Sandra intones; later, she tells Bucky, “I realized that after the years we spent together I never really knew you.” Duh.
Reasonably evocative of the self-indulgent ’80s, with some diverting magazine and party scenes, but they’d have to be a lot sharper to make up for a tired plot and a heroine who’s not nearly as endearing as her creator thinks.