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A desperate bid to avoid 'average'

October 22, 2002|Bernadette Murphy | Special to The Times

Margaret and Letty, educated, resourceful urban women in their mid-30s -- best friends since childhood -- feel the weight of the years passing, with only meager accomplishments to show. Time, they believe, is running out in "All Is Vanity," an enthralling, satirical novel by Christina Schwarz ("Drowning Ruth").

Both women know instinctively they're not mediocre people awash in a sea of humanity: They're special. Cloaked in incisive wit, the novel is a tragedy in the classic sense.

Margaret, living in New York, quits her job teaching English to write the great American novel, certain that a year off work will transform her into a literary success. Letty, a West Los Angeles mother of four small children, thinks that if she can keep pace with the upper-middle-class families of her social circuit -- the right haircuts for the kids, the right house -- she'll be the stunning wife and mother she was meant to be.

Almost immediately, Margaret hits the agonizing reality of novel writing, and her ensuing struggle with writer's block is utterly hilarious. Instead of putting words on the page, she decides to paint the walls of her rented apartment; next, she sands down her bookcases, then paints the window sills, confident that once the place looks just-so, the muse will take.

Schwarz uses laugh-out-loud insight into the writer's mind to illustrate Margaret's struggle. Determined to write a character who's a Vietnam vet, for instance, Margaret decides to reread Tim O'Brien for inspiration.

The two women write lengthy e-mails to one another, and in Letty's struggles to keep up with the California mom-hipster-cool model, Margaret finds, at last, her muse. She begins to write Letty's life as thinly veiled fiction, using the e-mails and childhood letters Letty wrote her.

When Letty's husband gets a lucrative job at a wealthy museum foundation, her standard of living rises dramatically, along with her desires. She remodels the kitchen and then sells the house to buy a bigger, more prestigious one. She throws extravagant parties and extends her family's finances beyond the breaking point.

After years of struggle, she's entitled, she tells herself. Margaret encourages Letty's skewed perspective, urging her to go further with her plans, because the more Letty's financial circumstances deteriorate, the better Margaret's plot becomes.

At heart, Schwarz's novel depicts the narcissistic flair in contemporary society: No one can stand to be average. We all think we deserve the best, yet obtaining it fails to address the emptiness inside. Describing an outrageously expensive party she threw, Letty writes to Margaret: "I thought the evening would be different somehow. I thought, first of all, that I would be different. More witty, more gracious. But I was just the same, hiding behind 'Swordfish-and-mango-salsa-in-a-blue-corn-tortilla-cup?' "

Schwarz's keen work portrays a tormenting reality: We may come to understand that all is vanity, yet usually we're helpless to shift course. When Margaret realizes that drafting a novel is not as easy as she had imagined, she digs through childhood writings, certain she'll find evidence of incipient genius to help her back on track.

What she finds instead is "at best precocity and at worst self-conscious straining. Had I been, after all, only an overachiever type, who, in fact, had not managed even to overachieve?" Armed with this knowledge, she's unable to let go of her literary aspirations. She'll just have to make up with willpower what she lacks in talent.

Letty, meanwhile, on the verge of bankruptcy, considers selling the expensive real estate. "This house, its neighborhood, even the renovations we'd begun ... made us the people I wanted us to be," she laments. "With these accoutrements, we had clearly succeeded in life. Without them, we had failed." Still, Letty cannot relinquish the image she's created, even if this tenacity will spell her downfall.

In this funny yet touching tale, Schwarz deftly delineates the tragedy of the human condition. When it comes to overthrowing egotism and the green-eyed monster of envy, there's a bit of Letty's covetousness and Margaret's rash ambition in us all.

Self-knowledge, in the long run, avails us nothing.



All Is Vanity

A Novel

Christina Schwarz

Doubleday: 368 pages, $24.95

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