Tama Janowitz

"Peyton Amberg"

(reviewed by Jenny Dressel APR 23, 2004)

“In her bag she found a brush and, standing in front of the sink, began to roughly tug her hair over the bowl. The itching momentarily abated. She looked down, about to wipe out the hairs that had come loose, when she saw the basin was full of flecks, red crusty bits, black specks. She peered more closely, surprised by the quantities of filth.

Something feebly waved tiny legs attacked to a fat brown body…”

Who would think the above quotation describes an upper middle class, fifty-year-old woman from Manhattan, working part-time as a travel agent, married to a reasonably successful Jewish dentist, with a son enrolled in boarding school?

Tama Janowitz’s stunning new novel, Peyton Amberg is a character study of a beautiful woman who believes that her looks and her body are all she has to offer to the world… and she willingly gives them.

When we meet Peyton, she has just arrived in Antwerp, Belgium, dirty and lice ridden, after a six-week stint in Hong Kong, where she was having an affair with a young Asian mobster. Through a series of flash backs, we learn of Peyton’s humble background and the decisions she has made to land her in the desperate straights she finds herself in.

Peyton grew up in Boston with her bipolar mother and drug-addicted brother. She had two sisters who are much older than she, and escaped from the Boston apartment as soon as humanly possible. It seems that Peyton’s mother had the largest influence on her, and her mother’s philosophy was, “without a man, you’re nothing.”

At 24, Peyton meets and marries Barry Amberg, an up-and-coming dentist from an affluent family. As Peyton remembers,

“He was a good-looking young man, on the short side-well, he wasn’t bad looking. Perhaps he lacked…charisma, a certain dynamic force. He had curly hair, a round face, and was slightly soft, too heavy on the carbohydrates and other rich foods. His eyes were small, soft brown with fine toast colored lashes. Behind his metal glasses, he always looked worried…”

As Peyton looks back, she seems to have gone through her engagement in a stupor. She got married because she was “supposed to,” but she’s really not sure why except because Barry loves her.

After the wedding, Peyton decides to go back to work part-time as a travel agent. She gets a discounted trip to a Brazilian resort, and this is when she has her first affair. The switch has been turned on. For alcoholics it’s that first beer; for Peyton, it was that first admiring glance from a male other than her husband.

But when we meet Peyton, she isn’t the 25-year-old with perky breasts and clear, sparkling eyes. Age has hit her -- the need for underwire bras and the crow’s feet have appeared. And at 50, poor Peyton is still trying to use her body, but not getting the desired results.

“What use was a woman unless she was young and some man wanted to sleep with her?... The rest of it- jobs, career, whatever you wanted to call it- was just icing, the cake itself was the man.”

Janowitz has done an outstanding job with this novel, in my opinion. At times, the book is graphic and can be pretty gross, but her character, Peyton, goes to desperate measures for the attention of men. I found the honesty pretty refreshing.

Some have compared Peyton Amberg to Madame Bovary. While it’s been years since I read about Emma, I recall feeling sympathy for her, because she lived in a time when women were supposedly confined to their marriage. The feelings I held for Peyton were more pity because I felt she could have done so much more for herself. In Peyton’s mind, her beauty equaled her worthiness; her obsession became laughable at times. Maybe I need to re-read Flaubert.

While Gloria Steinham and Jamie Lee Curtis would cringe to hear this, I see “Peytons in the making” everywhere around me - and I’m only 38. Janowitz’s clever satire brings this phenomenon to the forefront, and I think I’m going to give this book as a gift to all my friends before their consultations with the plastic surgeon. If my daughters were seventeen and not seven, this book would be required summer reading, especially if “boys were more important than grades.” I know the “lice” would turn them right around!

  • Amazon readers rating: from 6 reviews
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"The Male Cross Dresser Support Group"

(reviewed by Judi Clark NOV 15, 1998)

What a screwball! Pamela Trowell can't do anything without it resulting in huge repercussions and usually involving the law - like go to the post office, get fired or taking in a young stray boy. Even driving to Maine is a whole new experience seen through her eyes. I got quite a laugh as she tries to teach her "new son" (she found him) the ethical ways when she herself is somewhat debased.  As is usual with good humor, she speaks a lot of truth.  Silly as it is, I laughed hardest over a scene involving a decapitated human head.  (Why is this so funny?   8 Heads in a Duffel Bag and Crazy in Alabama made me laugh too!) 

My only disappointment with this book (and I say this so that you won't make the same mistake) is that the title is such a small part of this whole story, yet, due to the title and synopsis on the back of the book, I kept waiting for her to dress like a man.  Yeah sure, the male-cross-dresser-support-group comes into play, but it is only one incident among the many and very much towards the end.  Pamela really does run into quite a few problems before she resorts to dressing like a man.  And even that she screws up! 

  • Amazon reader rating: from 10 reviews

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About the Author:

Tama Janowitz Tama Janowitz vaulted to literary stardom with the bestselling Slaves of New York become the "the Most Talked About Writer of the Years" (Women's Wear Daily).  Her stories have appeared in such diverse magazines as The New Yorker, Paris Review, Spin, Bomb and Interview.  She lives in Manhattan with her dog.

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