Schadenfreude and its counterpart — loathing of the successful — are as endemic among writers as sniffles in a kindergarten. When Jonathan Franzen (or Michael Chabon, or Dave Eggers, or David Leavitt, or Elizabeth Wurtzel) reach the point in their careers when they are earning nearly as much as a journeyman HMO internist or a second-year corporate lawyer, chat rooms and coffeehouses resound with the cries of the righteous. When a young writer wins a decent advance for her first novel — an advance, it must be said, that is probably less than Puff Daddy spends each month on shoes — teeth gnash; hair is rent. (In a nation where the average citizen reads not quite one book per year, fiction is considered, perhaps correctly, a zero-sum game.) When the writer in question is attractive, wealthy and well-connected, the grinding molars can be heard all the way from Park Slope to Iowa City.
We have all been well-prepped for this sport of schadenfreude by well-aimed barbs from Bookslut, Moby Lives and other blogs obsessed with short-story collections by foxy New Yorker assistants, slight novels by recent Bennington grads, and thrillers “written” by supermodels who can’t be bothered even to read the books published under their names. Still, nothing could quite have prepared the lit world for the howls unleashed last year when Miramax Books shelled out $600,000-plus for Bergdorf Blondes, a slender first novel from Vogue writer Plum Sykes.
Vogue has always been famous for nurturing a certain kind of writer we’ll call novelist/socialite/whatever, or NSW for short. NSWs are usually slender, graceful and smart; stunningly attractive, well-born young literary women from first-rate schools who sprinkle citations from Proust and Edith Wharton into their descriptions of Carolina Herrera’s fall line before they retreat into an eternal twilight of art-museum benefits and Michael Kors pantsuits. NSWs are basically indistinguishable from the fragile heiresses they are so often called upon to write about. And when it comes time to document Donna Karan’s new corporate jet or the shoe-buying habits of billionaires’ wives, an NSW, like an LBD (Little Black Dress), is always appropriate.
Even by the standards of NSWs, Sykes was always kind of a piece of work, as ambitious as she is tall: a British semi–It Girl in New York, a fixture of those nightclubs with knee-high tables and $500 bottles of champagne, a serial canoodler, and, with her twin Lucy, a pre–Hilton sisters staple of the gossip columns. Her occasional Vogue column, “Fashion Fiction,” a wispy thing that usually brought together barely disguised Page Six girls and $420 thongs, was really the sort of writing that could send the populace to the barricades, flaming back issues in hand. (The thick September issues work best as torches, although you have to watch out for flare-ups from perfume inserts and the occasional rogue face-cream sample.) I would suspect that the Bush twins are big fans.
And there has never been a literary work more thoroughly bitch-slapped than Bergdorf Blondes. The book proposal — the proposal! — was reproduced and hacked apart on the Internet a year before the book even came out. The British dailies sharpened their axes on its elegantly lettered spine. The New York Times said that it made “Sex and the City resemble a carefully constructed anarcho-feminist critique.”
Girl meets boy — or, as Sykes puts it, PH, for Prospective Husband. Girl loses boy. Girl dates a lot of other boys — ATMs, MITs, G-V owners and philandering Italian princelings — until she realizes that the boy next door had been the one for her all the time. A boy who just happens to be an earl. Give or take a bit of latitude in locations and a few explicit paeans to $325 jeans, the girls who sit in the front row at Valentino shows, and genital defoliation — the heroine, identified only as “Moi,” calls the act of cunnilingus “going to Rio” in honor of the Brazilian wax, and stealthily text-messages her best friend as her fiancé explores the neighborhood between Ipanema and Copacabana — this is a plot that could have come from a lesser volume of Sweet Valley High.
Bergdorf Blondes is a certain kind of girl’s book, about a certain kind of girl’s obsessions. Neither Jane Austen or even the Laker Girls have probably ever fixated on the gamy striations of bachelor wealth with an instrument quite like Plum Sykes’ gimlet eye. But it may be too easy to consign this book to the pink-cover ghetto. Sykes can actually write, it is clear, even as she is rather too convinced of her own immutable adorableness, and some of her set pieces, particularly a book-club discussion of In the Heart of the Sea attended by women whose collective wealth outstrips some Third World countries, are as good as almost anything from early Martin Amis. Really — there’s very little wrong with Sykes that a good, healthy bout of self-loathing wouldn’t cure.
BERGDORF BLONDES | By PLUM SYKES | Miramax Books 312 pages | $24 hardcover