American first novels emerge from every demographic nook and cranny. They're written by the precocious and the infirm, cranked out by the high-minded and the lowbrow, and they're the holy grail for workshop babies, with their faculty-condoned prose. They're also produced by farm wives between harvests, by copy writers and junior editors, by the occasional drug-addled runaway and, perhaps most Americanly, by improbable jacks-of-all-trades, whose jacket bios contain combinations of the roguish signifiers "dishwasher," "logger," "truck driver," "blackjack dealer," "minor league ballplayer."
Despite the taxonomy-defying variety, two distinct first-novel genres gained major momentum in the 1990s: the farce on the hazards of modern dating, almost always written by women in the their late 20s to mid-30s (and best exemplified by Helen Fielding's mega-popular "Bridget Jones's Diary"), and the farce on the hazards of the modern workplace, almost always written by men in their late 20s to mid-30s and exemplified by a number of books, including Ted Heller's "Slab Rat" and Maxx Barry's "Syrup."
The second genre is admittedly more obscure to the general reader but no less prolific. Some may argue that it should rightly be classified as a subset of the first genre: After all, Bridget Jones toiled in misery at a second-rate publishing firm, champed at the bit for a chance to shine, was thwarted by her surroundings and eventually found a way to get back at her old boss. This is, essentially, the outline of every book belonging to the second category.
It's also the shape of "Me Times Three," a first novel from the New York Times' able-bodied Style reporter Alex Witchel who has come to these genres just as they threaten to wear out their welcome. Witchel, to her credit, has managed to infuse them with energy and charm, creating a story that's as affecting as it is just plain fun.
Witchel's dating and working heroine is Sandra Berlin, a nice suburban Jewish girl of the late 1980s--that decade of the moment--toiling away at Manhattan's Jolie!, "a magazine most frequently read under the hair dryer." Sandy's superior at Jolie! is a witchy, unimaginative impediment to her career goals, making Sandy's days of story meetings and rewrites a living hell. For Sandy, succor comes in the form of long-term beau John Buckingham Ross, alarmingly known as Bucky, a jocky WASP hopelessly devoted to her despite a few limitations: "the only topics he seemed to warm to ... were real estate values and Range Rover prices."
On the surface, Sandy and Bucky--happily engaged--are the perfect Manhattan couple: She with her little publishing job and he with his promising Wall Street career; she with her contentious, academic Jewish family and he with his staid white-bread parents and their "cottage" on Nantucket. It's enough to make Sandy fantasize about staying home and writing children's stories while Bucky brings home the Christmas bonuses and stock options.
Witchel dots this novel with Sandy's literary efforts, oddball fairy tales that have dreamlike connections to the book's goings-on. If slightly interruptive, they point up the fact that "Me Times Three" is really a fairy tale, cleaving close to the genre's conventions of symmetry and magic, of childlike wonder and the cruel hazards of experience. Just as we're cozying up to the idea of Sandy and Bucky forever, Sandy discovers that Bucky is also engaged to another woman--a heavily cantilevered blond from the office. And, soon after, Sandy finds out that he's engaged to yet another--this one smart and mousy.
"Me Times Three"--the title--refers to Sandy's crushing realization that she has become but one facet of her fiance's mad, misogynistic attempt to create an ideal spouse-to-be out of three women. It also alludes to Sandy's own three-pronged relationship to the trio of men who come to dominate Witchel's increasingly complex depiction of love, trust and betrayal. Besides Bucky, now exiled despite his desperate phone calls, there's Paul Romano, Sandy's gay best friend. With its lively banter and easy affection, Sandy and Paul's relationship is the polar opposite of Sandy and Bucky's measured caution. Paul is "Me Times Three's" flashiest candidate for handsome prince, but there is the inconvenient issue of sexual orientation and then the later tragedy when this energetic man is found to have AIDS.