Sunday, July 3, 2011

All Was Vanity

There are three books that I have read more than once, on my own both times.  There are many others that I read first for a class assignment and then later to see what I missed when reading on a deadline.  There are still others that I read first because I wanted to, and then again because my son wanted me to read them to him.  But the three books that I read twice just because I wanted to are Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, and now All is Vanity by Christina Schwarz.

When I first read All is Vanity, my kids were really young, and I didn't have much time for myself.  I remembered it as being a great book, but I've never met anyone else who read it, let alone liked it, and I wasn't sure if my impression of it may have been overly enthusiastic because I was so starved for grown up books.  On my second reading, I liked it even more than on the first.

All is Vanity is the story of Margaret, a woman who is smugly convinced that she is destined to be a novelist, and Lettie, her childhood friend who is now a stay at home mom to four children.  Margaret quickly finds that writing a novel isn't as easy as she thought it would be.  Lettie, meanwhile, is thrilled that her husband has accepted a new, higher paying job, and is anxious to improve her standard of living.

Both Margaret and Lettie feel a sense of entitlement.  They feel that they are not living at the level where they should be at that point in their lives.  While they don't realize it, they are on parallel tracks, where neither is satisfied with her position as compared to her peers.

What I remembered about A is V was Lettie's outrageous and uncontrolled, but somehow understandable, spending.  I remembered Margaret as the more reasonable of the two, who was guilty of encouraging Lettie's spending, but not really responsible in the end.  Truth be told, if more people had read A is V prior to 2008, the Great Recession would have been prevented.  Ben Bernake's warnings are nothing compared to Lettie's example.  But in this reading, I really understood Margaret better, and saw her faults which far exceeded her schadenfreude. 

All is Vanity is a really well written book, with interesting characters who will seem recognizable.  While it is a completely different story, The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walters is likewise a great book tackling the topic of a character's self created financial ruin.  What is impressive is that Schwarz was savvy enough to see the future of American consumerism and write this indictment five years before the cracks in our economy were discussed on daily talk shows.  Walters looked back in 2010, and wrote his story with 20/20 hindsight, but in 2003, Schwarz was dead on in telling the story of what would soon be.

Next Up:  A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Still Listening to:  A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

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