Katherine Taylor’s Rules for Saying Goodbye has the kind of dumb “for women only” jacket that makes you expect to hate what’s inside the book. An elegantly tapered hand holds an unlit cigarette and a martini just so, and the woman attached to that hand is no doubt making sparkling yet vacuous conversation with a potential Mr. Big in some softly lit New York bar. Arrgh, not The Devil and Ms. Bridget Jones Wear Sexy Prada in the City again.
Mercifully, Taylor spares us that grim fate, and while the Los Angeles–based first novelist hasn’t quite written The Group, Rules for Saying Goodbye is hardly Candace Bushnell redux either. (To prove it, more or less, she got into a public dustup with Indecision author and n+1 editor Benjamin Kunkel; read all about it on Gawker.) Taylor, who earned her MFA at Columbia under the stewardship of Michael Cunningham, knows better than to depict post-9/11 New York as some Carrie Bradshaw playground. Instead of attracting the best and the brightest, her New York is repelling them. Brooklyn is as expensive as Manhattan, cigarettes cost $10 a pack, and no one is allowed to smoke them inside anymore. Instead of a mojito or two as a social lubricant, alcohol in Taylor’s universe is an affectation that has curdled into a severe habit. Everyone’s got a drinking problem, and no one is willing to admit it.
That state of denial hovers over Taylor’s characters like a noxious cloud. The novel’s protagonist, also named Katherine Taylor, is trying to lead some semblance of an exciting urban adventure, but it just doesn’t take. It seems as if everyone’s trying on fatalism like it’s the new gray, and all relationships rot from the inside out. At one point, Katherine stops speaking “to at least one friend whose sadness demanded too much,” and surrounds herself with “people who liked to drink and stay out until the sun came up and people who didn’t like to talk about anything personal.” These characters party to keep the demons at bay, and closing time never really comes.
The fictional Katherine can blame Mom for everything. She grows up in a sun-baked Fresno suburb with a terminally depressed mother who wants her kid to matriculate anywhere but their godforsaken town, with its smell of “fertilizer and controlled burns.” So young Katherine’s whisked off to Claver in Massachusetts, the kind of East Coast boarding school that has prefects and prime cocaine. These are the most finely wrought and funniest scenes in the book, as she enters a charmed apprenticeship into jaded adulthood, with fumbling sexual overtures and long talks with girlfriends about boys, shaved legs and unwanted pregnancies. Taylor the writer captures the pointed cruelty and awkward posturing of teenage girl talk, the way friendship is forged over other people’s problems.
From school, it’s a powdery line or two before Katherine finds herself in Manhattan, yet another good-looking girl with creative pretensions and no clue. A lapsed theater major, she wants to write books but settles for puff pieces in glossy magazines. Many of her friends are one thing but aspire to be another; in other words, they’re bartenders. New York’s a stone drag for the most part. Bookstores are retrofitted as hipster bars, the streets smell rank, people fly in and out of her life. “We worried,” Taylor writes, “that we had the wrong friends, or not enough friends, friends with not enough money or too much obvious money.”
Katherine tries so hard to speed past unpleasant situations with lovers and sundry other New York types that aimless movement becomes an end in itself. She flies off to Europe with Henry, a magazine publisher, but gets altitude sickness following him up the face of Le Dom in Zermatt. (Afterward, she paints “dark polish to cover the bruises on my toenails.”) Later, she heads back to Europe — this time, Belgium — with an international journalist named Lucas, who wants Katherine to quit her writing career, such as it is, to raise geese for foie gras. Lucas, it turns out, is both boorish and boring.
Taylor the novelist has been maligned by some critics who have mistaken the novel for a high-heeled sex romp. Sure, people hook up right and left in this book, but it’s depressing as hell, and there are no sex scenes to speak of. Titillating, it ain’t. The relationships are all doomed from the start. Katherine the character knows it too, but it’s for lack of anything meaningful in her life that she trudges on against the current.
This novel’s terse restlessness has more in common with Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays than, say, Jennifer Weiner’s In Her Shoes. Taylor’s prose is almost without affect, as hollowed out as her doppelgänger’s soul, her humor so dry as to be desiccated. But it’s not all bleak. By the end of this carefully observed novel of manners, the fictional Katherine has figured out exactly what to do with her life, at least for a while: She gets a place in Beachwood Canyon.
RULES FOR SAYING GOODBYE | By KATHERINE TAYLOR | FSG | ?311 pages | $24 hardcover