Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Review: Mercury In Retrograde

Who would have thought that Page Six's Paula Froelich was funny? The infamous column embodies all the hallmarks of New York spirit -- ferocious, gossipy, always interesting and smart. But in Mercury in Retrograde, Froelich adds a sparkling sense of humor to the resume. Froelich's story involves the lives of three women residing at the same SoHo address.

Penelope Mercury, the first of the three that we meet, is a good natured journalist transplanted from Ohio -- not dissimilar to Froelich -- who is looking to gain a solid foothold on the social ladder of the media capitol of the world. Dana Gluck is a successful lawyer -- some might say workaholic -- recovering from a bad divorce. Her rich, coarse husband left her for a Russian Victoria's Secret model and in the process the sharp-eyed legal mind managed to extract from Mr. Unfaithful a fifth floor SoHo penthouse. Rounding out the trio is Lena "Lipstick" Carcrash, a socialite with a heart of gold, in the process of becoming something quite different. When the glamorous magazine editor is cut off by her billionaire father, she is forced to live in a scruffy apartment in SoHo. There she meets dana and Penelope. Let the games begin.

The three women bond over a yoga class in Dana Gluck's penthouse. Penelope, Dana and Lena are quite different characters. Dana, the corporate lawyer, has weight and self-esteem issues stemming from the aforementioned asshole ex-husband. Those issues are further exacerbated by the fact that the Russian model in question has the gall to briskly get pregnant, something she could not do with her ex. Gluck is also, unglamorously, losing her hair as a result of her mad pursuit of becoming the youngest partner ever at her law firm. And Dana Gluck has no social life.

Penelope Mercury escaped Cincinnati. It is here that Froelich is at her arch best, lampooning, lovingly, the absurdities of Middle America (In fairness, they would probably talk trash about Godless Manhattan). But there always hangs over Penelope the possibility that if she fails, Cincinnati looms (rhymes, of course, with dooms). It doesn't help that the adorably clumsy Penelope -- nice touch -- gets fired at the beginning of the book, taking the technicolor yawn all over her boss, nearly burning down the building in the process. Froelich handles Mercury with a real sweetness and vulnerability, rendering her a Young Media Everywoman, a deeply sympathetic figure. We are rooting for Young Mercury to win at the outset. Mercury -- the planet, not the pretty young New Yorker -- is also in retrograde, which causes all sorts of problems for this New York trio.

The character who undergoes the most change in Mercury in Retrograde is Lena "Lipstick" Carcrash. Her CV is the usual for the well born of that species -- Spence, blond, social columnist at a glossy Manhattan magazine -- but there is something special about Lena. Most socialites are characterized by a certain callousness, and, further, an almost languid lack of industry. They live the pampered life of high-quality veal. If left to their own devices, socialites would simply wilt like neglected orchids. Not so with Lena, who has a huge capacity for friendship as well as an appreciation of hard work that is somewhat alien to the usual behavior exhibited by socialites.

Instead of wilting in the absence of her Sun King Daddy's golden coin, Lena blooms. We realize that her old life, a life of following shallowly the rules of her class, is essentially meaningless. Worse: it is boring. Her bitchy nemesis Bitsy Farmdale unexamined life pales by comparison to what Lena is becoming. In joining the working class, Lena's industry -- which lay dormant under the heavy influence of Daddy's checkbook -- comes to the fore. Unable to purchase name designers that are imperative to her high-status job, "Lipstick Carcrash" is forced to rely on her own devices, cleverly sewing together last year's gowns with their quality fabrics into fashions inspired by classic fashion magazines supplied, dutifully, by her stylish gay friend. What she creates can only be properly construed as brimming with maximum fabulosity. And in the process, something changes in Lena. From Mercury in Retrograde:

"Her life was so busy that she rarely had the time to check the site anymore and obsess over her ranking. She'd look at it casually at work, but it didn't seem to matter. All of the people who she'd been 'friends' with for years just seemed to want something from her. They wanted Lipstick to put them in Y, or cover their gala, or to be photographed with them as now that Lipstick was so popular with, they knew a picture with Lipstick would ensure that their visage was posted onto the website alongside hers.

"It was tiresome. All Lipstick wanted to do was go home and sew more, to do something she felt so passionate about, and create a tangible product. She loved darting dresses and hemming skirts. She adored creating confections out of her own clothes and fitting them to her -- or Penelope's, or Dana's -- body. And when a dress or skirt was done, there was the satisfaction of wearing it or seeing it posted on the website and then being praised by people who had no idea where the clothes had come from. It was the purest form of flattery with no strings attached, because no one could figure out who the designer was; they just wanted the clothes.

"The few hours of spare time she had were spent with Penelope and Dana, who didn't care what her father did for a living or where she shopped. They were just fun. And for the first time in her life, Lipstick felt accepted for who she was, not what she was -- or who her parents were."

Friendship, fashion, career and relationships are the dominant themes at work in this fun book. We read it in a couple of days and although clearly in the chick-lit category (all the main characters are women, men are but fleeting shadows on this stage), we thoroughly enjoyed the time well spent in the company of these charming New York women. Buy this book especially if you are a young woman on the make and also if you are a young man interested by those young women on the make. Will Penelope gain a solid foothold in the unforgiving New York media world? Will Dana make partner and ultimately learn to love herself? Will Lipstick Carcrash manage to make it on her own, navigating the life of a wage-slave without a trust fund? You'll have to read Paula Froelich's own creative confection, which we heartily recommend.

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