Amanda Filipacchi is the funniest novelist you’ve never heard of.
Her three previous novels are as strange and wonderful as fiberglass sports cars from the 1950s. They are shapely, streamlined, and don’t pretend to be entirely realistic. Their charm emerges in how effortlessly they seem to take you to unlikely destinations.
In “Nude Men,” Filipacchi’s 1993 debut, a 29-year-old man tries to resist the relentless advances of a lust-crazed 11-year-old girl.
The heroines of “Vapor” (1999) and “Love Creeps” (2005) are equally twisted by love or obsession. As Filipacchi makes clear, perhaps the two forces are one in the same.
“The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty,” Filipacchi’s first novel in a decade, deepens her exploration of beauty and love, but with a comic levity so consistent it’s as if she’s piped it in.
Her setting is once again New York, the creative CAPITAL of writers, costume designers, and musicians. HERE ARE types WHO WOuLD NOT think twice about sulking at their own book parties and gallery launches.
Barb and Lily, the book’s twinned heroines, form a Janus-faced portrait of dating in an age when the beauty myth remains as strong as ever. And yet the need to get laid remains, too.
Lily is a talented musician with an ugly face. “Any attempt at improvement would be fatal,” Barb, who narrates, says bluntly. “Changing the distance between one’s eyes is not surgically possible.”
Barb is a creep, but a likable one. Ever since her best friend, Gabriel, threw himself off her roof IN DESPAIR OVER HIS UNREQUITED LOVE, Barb has resolved to try and never cause pain to another. SHE DOES THIS to the point that every time her psychopathic doorman greets her with an insult she apologizes to him.
“Keep talking,” he says through a yawn, when she tries to give him the name of her therapist so HE CAN EXPLORE HIS HOSTILITY. “I always yawn when I’m interested.”
The most extreme penance Barb EMBRACES INVOLVES sacrificing her appearance. A costume designer for films, she constructs a startlingly believable “fat suit” out of gels and pads and dons it daily. If her beauty caused one man’s death, it could do the same again.
“Your beauty is a deadly weapon,” her friend Georgia, a novelist, says with anger when she sees Barb wearing it the first time. “Wielding it recklessly is irresponsible. You must treat it like a handgun — keep it hidden, handle it with care, and never point it at people, not even in jest.”
Few comic novelists get characters talking so naturally, and amusingly, as Filipacchi. In one hilarious scene, Barb throws an excruciating dinner party for Lily’s new love interest.
The dinner is one long test for the man, who has continuously ignored Lily because she’s not physically attractive. “What can I say,” a guest chimes in when the man begs to be bailed out of his third-degree interview. “Many guys can get turned on by other attributes. Most jerks can’t.”
What begins as a melodramatic act of penance, however, turns on Barb. She likes being invisible, until she DOESN’T. She goes to bars and tries to hit on men. When they ignore her she slowly strips revealing the glowing beauty which SHE HAS BEEN COVERING UP. And then she gives them a piece of her mind.
In the meantime, Lily learns to disguise her own looks by playing beautiful music. She perfects her craft to the point that whenever she plays a song her own appearance undergoes a drastic change. She becomes the picture of beauty, so bewitching that the man WHO DISPLAYED LITTLE INTEREST IN HER CHANGES HIS MIND.
“The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty” isn’t a 21st century version of Fay Weldon’s “Lives and Love of a She-Devil.” Filipacchi, the daughter of well-known 1960s model Sondra Peterson, isn’t LOOKING FOR steel-toed satire.
She’s far more interested in gently sending up how beauty cuts both ways, for those born with it and those who never possess it externally.
Besides, all of the characters in this novel wear masks. The men who fall in love with Lily and Barb DON masks of APATHY; Lily and Barb are so concerned with their own masks they try mightily to discount the fact that some part of what their boyfriends fall for is their personality, NOT THEIR APPEARANCE.
“The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty,” like all beauties, isn’t perfect. It could have progressed just fine without its surreal touches. Filipacchi also occasionally allows a monologue to run on in a theatrical way.
But these are small complaints. They used to make movies that feel like this book: “Next Stop, Greenwich Village”; “Metropolitan”; “An Unmarried Woman.” Stylish, ensemble-cast love stories set in Manhattan about people trying to figure out who they are against the backdrop of a Gotham skyline.
THESE ARE stories to make you think, but not too hard; comedies that strike to the core without asking you to regress. There is a high art in this kind of ungentle entertainment, and in “The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty” Amanda Filipacchi proves she hasn’t lost her touch, not even a little.John Freeman is the author of “How to Read a Novelist.”