Elements of Style

No, I haven’t been reading Strunk and White lately. Instead I picked up Wendy Wasserstein’s first and only novel, Elements of Style, which was published shortly after her death in 2006. This fairly short book introduces us to high society of New York City, shortly after 9/11. The main character, Frankie Weissman, is a pediatrician, struggling to maintain her reputation as “the” doctor to see while also fulfilling a personal calling to serve underprivileged children. Through Frankie, we meet the cast of characters who are all connected to Frankie either through past school experiences or through their children, her patients.

There are lots of juicy details about fashion, dinner parties, affairs, and managing the household staff to take in as the plot progresses. Much of the detail seems designed to show just how shallow everyone other than Frankie truly is. But there’s a sense that at least some of the characters may figure out what’s really important in life, putting into perspective the loss of life and the feelings of hopelessness brought on by 9/11. I was enthralled, wanting to find out just how it turned out. Would the obvious social climber find acceptance? Would the woman whom everyone wanted to be discover that she actually wanted to be herself? Would Frankie find a man who appreciated her and whom she could truly open up to?

In the end, I have to say I was disappointed. Like Wasserstein’s own life, Elements of Style seems cut tragically short. The novel’s ending left me unfulfilled, wondering what I’d missed in the lives of the characters. I can only wonder if Wasserstein might have ended the book differently, had she not been dying in Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, just as one of her characters does. All that said, Elements of Style is still a worthwhile read. The wondering about how the lives of the characters turned out has made this a book that’s stayed with me, even after I turned the last page.

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