How will it turn out for modern-day Texan Vivienne Cally, modeled on the tragic heroine of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, after she loses both her income and her overprivileged circle of friends?
Maintaining the lifestyle of an oil heiress, popular, buoyant, beautiful Vivienne hangs out with a wealthy crowd in an upscale Houston neighborhood and shares many of her friends' preoccupations, especially money and marriage. But though she carries the name of Cally Petroleum, Vivienne doesn’t actually possess a fortune, so a lot hangs on her expectations of Bucky Lawland, her traditional, grotesquely selfish, wealthy boyfriend, deemed by everyone to be “a catch.” The appearance of sincere but much-less-moneyed trainee architect Preston Duffin tilts the reader’s expectations toward the territory of commercial fiction, yet Puig’s intention in her debut is larger, drawing comparisons between the crushing social norms of early-20th-century New York and the narrow horizons of an insulated, contemporary Texan elite. Like Lily Bart, the doomed heroine of Wharton’s novel, Vivienne’s trajectory heads downward after she offends Bucky by urging her own sexual preferences over his, lurches from one misunderstanding to another with Preston, and quits what had seemed like a good job. Puig’s serious ambitions for her novel—considerations of place, independence, the role of the wife in marriage—conflict with its shape throughout, never more so than when, after a taste of reality, she propels Vivienne back toward dream-come-true opportunities and romance. The result is an uneasy, archly expressed hybrid: a conventional love story with issues.
Inconsistent in tone and orientation, this novel bears comparison with its own heroine, “lovely and curious and a bit confused.”