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A COLLECTION OF BEAUTIES AT THE HEIGHT OF THEIR POPULARITY by Whitney Otto Kirkus Star

A COLLECTION OF BEAUTIES AT THE HEIGHT OF THEIR POPULARITY

By Whitney Otto

Pub Date: March 12th, 2002
ISBN: 0-375-50545-8
Publisher: Random House

As elaborate as origami, this elegant fourth from Otto (The Passion Dream Book, 1997, etc.) follows the lives of San Franciscans in search of love and pleasure.

Filled with unusual elements—reproductions of Japanese wood blocks, photos of Duchamp’s work, an Elizabeth Bishop poem, a brief history of Vermeer’s women and their letters—the story could have fallen victim to its collection of esoterica but instead is elevated to a sort of quiet chant or meditation on people living the accidental life. In a book thematically inspired by 17th-century Japan’s “floating worlds” (pleasure zones focusing on the world’s momentary, usually sensual, delights), the large cast of characters are floating in life, living for the moment in the most transient of cities. They all intersect at the Youki Singe Tea Room, where Elodie keeps a pillow book (a Japanese journal of observations) on the developments of their lives, with the rundown teahouse serving as host to their unfolding stories. Charming Ray, a drug dealer by trade, and his girlfriend Gracie (and their friends, who eventually show up in chapters of their own) party-hop, ending up in equal parts stoned, disillusioned, and in awe under the massive columns of the Palace of Fine Arts. Nash the artist falls in love with Suzanne, first attracted and then repelled by the intentional emptiness (a cardboard box serves as her dining table) of her domestic life. The beautiful and mysterious Jelly roams aimlessly through the novel until she falls in love with an Iranian boy (after a brief tryst she sends him pictures of herself in places all over San Francisco) who in turn falls in love with a transvestite. The conclusion returns to Elodie, who when house-sitting for strangers (people tied to her in ways she doesn’t know) finds an adulterous love letter in the homeowner’s overcoat, an appropriate end to this collection of vignettes celebrating the ephemeral.

Beautifully conceived and executed: a small gem.