Gaitskill, whose story “Secretary” was made into a 2002 film of the same name, returns with this ravishing novel about a friendship between a young fashion model and an unattractive older woman dying of AIDS.
Alison Owen is a 36-year-old former runway model now enduring the consequences of her teenage debut in the fashion industry. She occasionally works as a cleaning woman, but mostly lives on disability—the result of an auto accident that brought the last phase of her diminishing career to an end. Insomnia, the codeine she takes to relieve the chronic pain of her ruined rotator cuff and recurrent fevers (symptoms of advancing hepatitis-C) combine to transform her waking consciousness into a lush kaleidoscope of memory: international fashion shoots; her Parisian chauffeur-lover, René; the paranoid agency head, Alain, who took her as his mistress and then absconded with her Swiss bank account; her mother’s deathbed; her father’s anguish while listening to Rigoletto; the catalogue agent who raped her at 17; Jersey boys from her hometown; a naked man on a leash in an S&M club; her Jay McInerney–like boyfriend in New York’s booming ’80s social scene. But most of all, she remembers Veronica, the abrasive older woman she met against the backdrop of a Manhattan that was just learning about AIDS (and still believing women were immune). Veronica, who reacts dispassionately to Alison’s confessions of her past, is an unerring proofreader (her motto: “Still Anal After All These Years”)—one of the army of over-educated clerical workers who mine the night shifts of law firms and big business to fund their screw-the-system lives. Her friends are all literate gay men; her bisexual lover is Duncan, who eventually succumbs to AIDS. Veronica and Alison were not lovers, hardly even friends, but they haunted each other, and somehow, as Gaitskill devastatingly illustrates, they made each other whole.
A gorgeous, articulate novel that is at once an unflinching meditation on degradation and a paean to deliverance.