By A.J. Jacobs
July 30, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

A Certain Age

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I’ll say this much for Tama Janowitz. With her new novel, A Certain Age, she’s managed to create one of the least likable characters in modern fiction history. More self-obsessed than Portnoy, more marriage-crazed than Bridget Jones, this skinny blond twit is truly horrid. The question is, do you want to spend 317 pages in her company? That would be no.

A Certain Age delves into the not-exactly-uncharted territory of Manhattan’s little-black-dress cocktail-party culture. It’s much the same scene that Janowitz explored in Slaves of New York, the best-selling 1986 short-story collection that made her quasi-famous, sort of a Jay McInerney in designer skirts.

This time, the author has written an homage to Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, only with a lot more oral sex and a lot less subtlety. Our thirtysomething antiheroine, Florence, toils at a second-rate auction house appraising jewelry. But her real job is hunting for a fancy husband who will keep her in alligator handbags and Van Cleef earrings and silver BMWs.

The book traces Florence’s relentless downward spiral: She has an affair with her friend’s husband and is banished from their East Hampton house. She loses $25,000 on a sketchy restaurant investment. She puts on a couple of pounds, the result of too many vodka cranberries and too much pasta with squid ink. She rebuffs the only morally decent character — a homeless-advocate lawyer — to shtup a slick Italian wine heir and a menacing cabdriver. Eventually, our Florence is reduced to smoking crack and, worse, taking public transportation. All in all, a depressing affair.

Florence’s only meaningful relationship is with her wardrobe, which Janowitz describes throughout the book in alarming detail. ”She put on a flared striped cotton skirt, in shades of forest green, mustard, dark brown and beige; a pair of dark green patent leather flats, hand-made in a French shop; a brown-and-beige sleeveless floral-print silk shirt with a Peter Pan collar.” It goes on, but you get the idea.

With such a relatively twist-free plot and such aggressively offensive characters, the writing had better be damn good — we’re talking Ellison, or at the very least, Easton Ellis. Alas, it’s not. Janowitz is unafraid of embracing the cliché (when she’s depressed, Florence — you guessed it — devours chocolate ice cream). And the author repeatedly bashes us over the head with her New York-is-superficial thesis: ”Manhattan was a shabby world, inhabited by cardboard cutouts, and she walked among them.” What’s more, for a supposedly knowing novel, the references can be surprisingly dated (one major character is an aromatherapist; so 1994).

To be fair, the book is not entirely devoid of wit. Sprinkled throughout are a few entertainingly acerbic lines. Consider this passage on Florence’s jadedness: ”She had no morals. Who did? Only a Red Guard, beating an old professor in the name of Mao Tse-tung.” Likewise, there’s an amusing scene where Florence suffers through a Mozart concert — music she thinks is fine in the background of period films, but nothing more. Those glimmers, however, are far too scarce.

My advice: Janowitz should return to short stories. Slaves of New York made for a much sharper book because we didn’t have enough time to learn to hate the characters. C-

A Certain Age

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