Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Vain and Uninteresting New Yorkers

By Valerie Yarberry

AUGUST 2, 1999: 

A Certain Age by Tama Janowitz (Doubleday) hardcover, $23.95

Surprisingly, A Certain Age is not a first novel. Rather, it is Tama Janowitz's sixth try at book-length fiction. This is surprising because of the impression the novel gives readers almost immediately: It is a story suffused with unbelievable, dry diction, underdeveloped characters and metaphors that are all too often weak and convoluted. These elements led me to perceive Janowitz as an inexperienced novelist, but the opposite is true. Janowitz, in fact, has published several novels and been a frequent contributor to many New York magazines.

In three parts, A Certain Age tells the story of Florence Collins, a vain and uninteresting New Yorker who struggles desperately to meet and marry a wealthy man. Florence makes a modest salary working as a jewelry appraiser for one of New York's second-rate auction houses, but to make herself more "marketable" to men, she lives far beyond her means by indulging in outrageously expensive manicures, hair care products and clothes. She views her body merely as a "commodity" and invests thousands of dollars in her frequent and indulgent massages, hair cuts and shopping excursions. The narrative is often punctuated with Florence totaling the prices of her custom-mixed cosmetics, designer outfits, dining bills and apartment rates.

In Part One, Florence visits friends in the Hamptons for a carefree weekend getaway and ends up sleeping with her host's husband and nearly drowning their daughter -- all within 24 hours of her arrival. Later, when the young girl dies of pneumonia, Florence feels very little regret and actually tries to shift the blame to the parents. This event sparks a string of caustic remarks in local gossip columns, and suddenly Florence finds herself being shut out of the chic social circles.

During Part Two, the whiny and egocentric Florence travels between the most stylish restaurants and art openings in New York while she tries to lure men into proposing to her. It seems that nothing -- and no one -- is good enough for Florence's epicurean standards. She frequently dismisses the kind and generous Darryl because he left his job as a Wall Street lawyer to help the homeless with their legal issues -- an unsavory occupation, Florence concludes.

At this point, it has become rather clear why Florence cannot make or keep friendships: she is spiteful, thoughtless and greedy. She eventually loses her job and is forced to pay her rent and costly "personal maintenance" bills from an inheritance she was awarded after her mother's death. Earlier in the story, Florence had basically stolen a bag of valuable jewelry which she was commissioned to appraise. She intended to report the jewels as stolen and live off the profit. Because she is so lazy, however, Florence never looks for work (nor does she act on her plan to file a report about the jewels) and does not even bother to open her ever-increasing stack of bills.

In the meantime, this painfully monotonous story is interrupted with appearances by a sprinkle of dull characters, all of whom have no depth, no goals and nothing interesting to say. To make it worse, it is often difficult to determine who is speaking because Janowitz did not bother to clearlydemarcate her various characters' dialogue.

In Part Three, Janowitz attempts, with little success, to give Florence a soul. But instead of this selfish, mean-spirited character overcoming her faults and actually getting some morals, readers are brought along with Florence on a tiresome endeavor to find the perfect outfit for an evening out. When this seemingly endless episode is over, Florence is left with an addiction to crack and an eviction notice tacked to her front door.

It seems that Janowitz actually expects her audience to feel sorry for poor Flo. Had the narrative been in the first-person rather than the third, it may have been easier to understand Florence's motivations and circumstances. As it was, I had a difficult time pitying (or even understanding) this character. If Janowitz had spent more time fleshing out her characters and plot, and less time imbuing her novel with shallow observations about New York's social stratification, A Certain Age might have been a little easier to stomach.

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