Privilege comes with a capital P in two witty, if wearing, new novels about life on the upswing.
Both are send-ups – one of elitism, the other of entitlement – and, while neither is particularly edifying, they both keep one reading.
Deborah Copaken Kogan's "The Red Book" is named for the crimson-covered Harvard Class Report issued at five-year intervals to Harvard and Radcliffe graduates. Its unspoken importance is hinted at in Copakagen Kogan's author's note:
"No data exists concerning the percentage of red books that are cracked open the minute their recipients arrive home from work, the playground, an adulterous tryst, what have you, but the author will go out on a limb here and guess one hundred."
This is the very red book that caused an uproar in recent weeks – when it published information received from 1962 graduate Theodore "Ted" Kaczynski, the convicted Unabomber, who listed his occupation as "prisoner."
For Copaken Kogan, herself a 1988 graduate, the red book is a compelling and clever device for introducing readers to her novel's several protagonists – Addison, Mia, Clover and Jane – and others about to attend their 20-year reunion.
Indeed, it is the red book entries that sustain Copaken Kogan's otherwise overwritten and exhaustingly "hip" rendition of a Cambridge weekend – replete with nearly all of life's profound as well as trivial moments.
Yet Copaken Kogan is a strong writer with a wry sense of humor, writing a book she surely knew the world would see as a cross between "The Group" and "The Big Chill."
Her Harvard women may have money, class, talent, ambition and connections but these advantages do not completely solve the problem of how to have a raging career while raising children with names like Houghton, Thatcher and Trilby.
Addison, the trust-fund mother of this trio, wants Trilby, her only daughter, to go to her alma mater: "At least there, she figures, the type of drugs she'll be taking will expand her mind instead of rotting her teeth."
Expanding the mind is of import to Addison who says: "If nothing else, Harvard had been good for that: stuffing the brain full of beautiful words, apt phrases, to be plucked out of the larder and thawed, decades later, as needed."
There is diversity here, and sexual and other preferences all caught in a tight weekend of old roommates, current and former partners – with children where applicable.
There is even a list – "a secret chalice of proper nouns" – by which Copaken Kogan shares names of exclusive clubs, schools, villages, debutante balls and the like, all yielding at least three good reasons to read this book:
*A tale told by Mia's famous-film-director husband – of his sole infidelity, on 9/1 1.
*A telling evening during which the protagonists' children find their own nefarious fun, according to age and libido.
*An unforgettable afternoon when Mia, a frustrated actress still nursing her fourth child, auditions for the part of Nora in Ibsen's "The Doll's House," her performance so fervent milk surges from her breasts.
Copaken Kogan also gives us a marvelous riff on piercings in intimate places, and more – much more. Her own red book may not be a complete success as a novel – but her writing is wonderful and all those hip musing and retorts, wearying as they can be, are hard to let go.
Tinsley Mortimer's "Southern Charm," on the other hand, has all the substance of cotton candy and would be alarming unless – and this is a very big unless – one chooses to read the novel as sheer camp.
For surely Mortimer – a socialite like her "heroine" – doesn't expect adults to read "Southern Charm" seriously in any other way.
Mary Randolph Mercer Davenport – otherwise known as Minty – is the focus here, a Southern debutante let loose in Manhattan, dreams of Eloise at the Plaza dancing in her head:
"Did I have a job? Not yet. Did I have friends? Well, I was working on that. What mattered was that I was in New York City, and if I stretched out my bathroom window and turned ten degrees to the right, I could just make out the very top of the roof of the Plaza Hotel. And maybe even catch a glimpse of Eloise."
What happens when the Eloises of the world grow up may be the focus here. It's hard to tell – but one thing is certain: Minty Davenport's life mirrors Tinsley Mortimer's, right down to her name (given in full in some reports as Tinsley Randolph Mercer Mortimer).
The chief concern, in Minty's world, seems to be what to wear, in every situation, in order to capture, and keep, the right man.
"My mother's dream for me was not only that I get married as soon as possible but that I marry ‘well,'" Minty muses early on in "Southern Charm."
For this, and a job, money and connections are required. Neither Minty nor Tinsley seems to lack either, making it hard to care about her narrow life view –- unless Mortimer's readers are allowed to laugh out loud.
Minty's mother Scarlett – think "Gone with the Wind" – hovers like Austen's Mrs. Bennett, telling Minty, "There is no such thing as temporary. Only second rate."
Minty wants us to know she is no fool:
"This is the thing about southern women (and my mother is a prime example of the species): They may come across as sugary-sweet and fluttery at first. They can be frivolous, fragile, trivial even. But not so fast. Beneath the perfectly coordinated ensembles; behind the hair blown dry to perfection; under the lipstick, with lips drawn in first with pencil, filled with a waxy garnet and finally blotted with the most delicate, most exquisite of handkerchiefs, southern women are all backbone. Suggest to my mother that she is allowed to do something, even intimate to her that there is a possibility she will not be able to get her way, and may God have mercy on your soul."
Names (starting with Minty) are priceless here. Baron Guggenheim is a young acquaintance with an impressive home: "Having an elevator that opens up into your apartment is the New York equivalent of a mile-long driveway lined with magnolia trees."
Emily Maplethorpe, an old school chum of Minty's, is a publicist at Saks – and it is she who introduces Minty to the Manhattan fashion world where she is noticed enough to make the New York Post's coveted Page Six, a certified "social swan."
A job in a public relations fashion firm follows. (What PR strives for, Minty tells us, is "getting buzz.") There is a wealthy new boyfriend, by the name of Tripp, even an engagement – but no real (ITAL) frisson (end ital) unless you count a tiff over another woman after which Minty learns Tripp is playing racquet ball:
"The racquet club, is that right? I thought. Here I am barely able to hail a cab because I am so humiliated and Tripp is burning calories."
Mortimer is writing all this with a wink and a nod, one hopes, because most of us, praise God, would never be in these frothy situations.
Karen Brady is a retired News columnist.
The Red Book
By Deborah Copaken Kogan
347 pages, $24.99
By Tinsley Mortimer
Simon & Schuster
242 pages, $25