After her compassionate and hugely successful debut (Drowning Ruth, 2000), Schwarz returns with something completely different: a mean-spirited account of how a would-be novelist who can’t write brings down her best friend, a domestic social striver with dreams beyond her means.
With great fanfare, Margaret quits her job as a private school English teacher in Manhattan to write her novel. Although she and husband Ted, who works for a nonprofit foundation, already live on a tight budget, Ted is supportive at first. After all, Margaret has assured him she can finish the book in a year. The only problem is that Margaret has no clue what to write. She begins and discards the story of a Vietnam vet, but mostly she fritters away her time in all the ways many (most?) writers know all too well—household chores, eating, and communicating with her best friend Lydia. Lydia and Margaret grew up together in California. Margaret was always the precious, more sophisticated one, the Robinson Crusoe to Lydia’s Friday. But it quickly emerges that Lydia has some natural talents, for language and writing for instance, that went unremarked by either. Lydia is still in California, a stay-at-home mom with a brood of children and a strapped budget whose husband Michael has just been lured from his tenured professorship to a better-paying, more high-profile job at a well-endowed museum. Soon Lydia and Michael begin spending: restaurant meals, new clothes, a new dishwasher, a new house. As Lydia e-mails Margaret about her domestic misadventures and about her increasingly more luxurious life with its accompanying financial strains, Margaret’s creative juices begin to flow. When Margaret starts egging Lydia on to greater excesses of spending, she knows she’s manipulating Lydia’s life for the purpose of her Madame Bovary–like plot. Unfortunately, she can’t manipulate Lydia out of financial ruin anymore than she can get her book published.
Brave in its unforgiving nastiness, if not exactly amusing (and possibly toxic to aspiring writers).