A modern-day Rosenkavalier, as atmospherically situated among Manhattan’s affluent Jewish elite as the Strauss opera was among Vienna’s aristocrats.
In the sexy opening scene, 48-year-old Marian Kahn is making love with 26-year-old Oliver Stern while late-afternoon traffic blares on Park Avenue below her apartment. She’s a married history professor at Columbia who’s written a surprise bestseller about an 18th-century American adventuress; he runs an ultra-chic Village flower shop called The White Rose and is the son of her oldest friend. Their midday idyll turns to farce with the unannounced arrival of Marian’s stuffy cousin, Barton Ochstein, come to boast of his engagement to Sophie Klein, a Columbia grad student (doing her thesis on an anti-Nazi group called the White Rose) whose super-rich but definitely-not-Our-Crowd father Mort is eager to find a gentlemanly caretaker for his daughter and his billions. Funny, Marian had always assumed Barton was gay, and he certainly takes a lascivious interest in Oliver, who’s scrambled into some of Marian’s clothes and a wig to introduce himself as her assistant Olivia. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guess that “Olivia” will play a role in scuttling Barton’s unsuitable match with intellectual, unworldly Sophie, but this is the only clumsy note in an otherwise deftly plotted narrative. Koreltiz (The Sabbathday River, 1999, etc.) provides glimpses of her characters’ pasts to explain their motivations, she shows people changing in ways that are sometimes painful but usually necessary and always plausible, she makes Oliver’s and Sophie’s youthful confusions as compelling as Marian’s middle-aged ruefulness. The supporting cast is equally well-imagined (though Marian’s husband should have been more than an offstage presence), and the author provides knowledgeable background material on everything from the New York publishing scene to the Rockefeller drug laws. In crisp, unsentimental prose, she gently traces the inevitable disintegration of Marian’s affair with Oliver and shows both of them making new commitments, which will come as a relief to readers who have grown to really care about these people and hope for their happiness.
Elegant and melancholy yet surprisingly optimistic, warmed by full-bodied characterizations and expert delineation of complex emotions.