Lucinda Rosenfeld’s first novel, “What She Saw,” was truly wonderful. Told in a series of vignettes, it showcased her ability to fully conjure a character from a few short strokes. Smart, incisive, and funny, the book was a wry delight.
In her latest novel, “The Pretty One,” Rosenfeld again aims for gimlet-eyed lightness but winds up with paper-thin, unsympathetic characters. It is a flat soufflé, made all the more frustrating by flashes of what could have been.
The novel centers on a trio of sisters. There’s Perri, a wealthy, overachieving suburbanite whose perfectionist tendencies are ruining her marriage. There’s Gus, an idealistic, gossipy lesbian lawyer whose girlfriend leaves her because they argue too much. Then there’s Pia, “the pretty one,” a dippy, aimless art-gallery curator and single mother in love with a married man.
Each sister has at least one degree from an excellent university; each competes for her mother’s favor; each faces the towering problem of self-actualization in the face of tremendous socioeconomic privilege. Perhaps their problems stem from their bumbling father: “Despite his groundbreaking work on the origin of quark and lepton flavors, Bob Hellinger didn’t know how to boil an egg.” It must be a struggle to be the progeny of such a cliché.
So how does one affluent woman set herself apart from another, equally affluent woman? Clothes, of course. Pia wears skinny jeans, Gus ripped jerseys, and Perri terrible, middle-aged ensembles. Then there are their dueling professions as well as sexual partners and the amount of attention each pays to their rapidly declining parents.
At the beginning of the novel, the sisters find these points of divergence significant enough to hate each other for them. But ultimately, these are superficial differences. By the novel’s end, the sisters, who’ve faced various smallish and medium-sized travails alone and together, have realized the importance of family and are rewarded with devoted romantic partners, steady work, and homes in nice neighborhoods. What a relief!
There’s plenty of laughter along the way — for the characters, not for the reader. Bob, that silly smarty-pants, gets talking about the medicinal consumption of urine, provoking Pia to quip, “Urine welcome.” This causes her sisters to “burst into laughter so raucous that it nearly propelled them off their chairs.” A remark about Perri’s pirate-like outfit — “Didn’t he ask her why she had no eye patch?” — makes Pia “burst into bosom-vibrating guffaws.” When one of them swears, forget it: The sisters “were not just laughing but doubled over on the floor and nearly convulsing” (at least they didn’t burst this time). Perhaps another thing the sisters have in common is undiagnosed mental illness?
When the characters aren’t wallowing in self-inflicted misery or laughing over unfunny remarks, they’re spewing platitudes about what it means to be a sister. There is “a tacit agreement between sisters that certain traumatic events of the past [are] never to be alluded to again.” Sisters “could tell almost everything about each other’s feelings simply by observing the tilt of each other’s heads.” What these sisters can’t accomplish, it seems, is to exist in a narrative deep enough to sustain the reader’s interest.
“There are a lot of people in the world with actual problems,” Gus whines when her girlfriend leaves her. “‘I hate myself for feeling this way.” Us, too.