"All Is Vanity"
(Reviewed by Shannon Bloomstran NOV 30, 2002)
All Is Vanity is the story of lifelong friends, Margaret Snyder and Letty MacMillan, two thirty-somethings who live on opposite coasts and have opposite lives. Letty, a stay at home mother of four is married to Michael, "a tweedy art historian with a specialty in nineteenth century Lithuanian printmaking. . ." The two grew up nearly inseparable, Letty, playing the affable Tonto to Margaret's Lone Ranger, at least it seemed so to Margaret. After college Margaret and her husband Ted migrated to the Big Apple where he works for a charitable foundation and she is an English teacher at a tony private high school. Schwarz establishes a regretful tone early on; we know that Margaret commits some atrocious breach of confidence, we just don't know how.
The why of her act of betrayal, however, becomes apparent early on when she quits her job in order to pursue writing a novel. Mind you, she has never published a short story, let alone a novel and she does not even have the faintest idea for a plot. She can analyze the appropriate color of ink, "black is too serious and blue isn't serious enough," but she can't write her novel. She can also make bookcases, paint her apartment, go grocery shopping, and reminisce about her precocious childhood (she sculpted a model of the Temple of Athena at Paestum out of Ivory Soap and Play-Doh). All in an attempt to stave off the inevitable confrontation with her husband over her lack of authorly production. Actually, Margaret wants not so much to write a novel as to have written one, she craves the social and cultural acceptance such work brings without actually having to go through the motions. "I wanted them to recognize me for the person I believed I truly was."
Letty's life is meandering along until Michael accepts a job at a prestigious Los Angeles museum, necessitating, at least in her mind, a huge ramp up in personal spending. The expenses; a Ford Explorer, private school for the kids, "twenty-four-inch terra-cotta squares for the patio from a family of potters in Guadalajara, who promise to make them all slightly irregular to emphasize that they are hand-formed," should be covered by an equally steep ramp up in Michael's salary. Alas, all is vanity, at least for Letty. The pay does not seem to be forthcoming. Bankrupt herself, albeit creatively, Margaret mines Letty's personal and financial breakdown as material for her own novel. Schwarz expertly probes the fields of desperation in which both women find themselves.
The build up of the novel takes a great deal of time. Schwarz follows Margaret's attempts to write in sometimes excruciating detail. I question the wisdom of spending over 200 pages writing about a character whose chief attribute is that she can't write. Ostensibly, this "deep background" forces the reader to understand and perhaps even sympathize with Maragaret's betrayal, although I found the buildup to be so gradual as to be dull. Conversely, Letty's slide happens in the blink of an eye, her finances quickly snowballing out of control. She also has a knack for description and renders Letty's spending in such exquisite detail that it becomes painful to read. She delves deeply into the theme of personal responsibility since both Letty and Margaret abdicate so much of it. It's not Margaret's fault she can't write a novel, she lacks time, or inspiration or it's too hot or too cold. Letty can't blame herself for spending $10,000 on a rug. They must keep up with the Joneses whose children are off learning Japanese and devising genetics experiments. Schwarz offers an interesting commentary on the cult of consumerism and that most uniquely 21st century sport, competitive mothering.
Even though I lack Oprah's clout and most regrettably her bank account, I can endorse All is Vanity despite its herky jerky pacing. A substantial sophomore effort, it provides interesting discussion about the nature of female friendships and American acquisitiveness.
- Amazon readers rating: from 49 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from All Is Vanity at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- Reader's Guide and excerpt for Drowning Ruth
- Oprah's Books on Drowning Ruth
- Atlantic Online interview with Christina Schwarz and All Is
- ReviewOfBooks.com collection of reviews for All Is Vanity
- Excerpt from So Long At the Fair
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