Review: All is Vanity

All is Vanity by Christina Schwarz

I love watching fictional pretentious novelists get their comeuppance. (Not that I don’t like seeing actual pretentious novelists get their comeuppance, but it’s easier to gloat over the failings of a fictional character rather than a fellow human being.) Something about watching people who think there’s some sort of prerequisite to be called a writer and, most importantly, thinking their first novel’s first draft will become a runaway best seller makes me cackle in delight. Is it because I thought the same thing as a wee lass, or just because I know that the reality is so much different? I may never know. But I was delighted to discover that All is Vanity, an early Nancy Pearl recommendation on my list, dealt with such a novelist.

All is Vanity follows Margaret Synder, formerly an English teacher at a prestigious private school and now a novelist. Or, at least, she’s trying, but she just can’t quite get the Next Great American Novel moving, to the chagrin of her husband and their dwindling funds. Her best friend from childhood, Letty MacMillian, is having troubles of her own; with her husband’s new job at a prestigious art institution, Letty is forced to try and keep with the Jones the next tax bracket up. In Letty’s predicaments and letters, Margaret finds inspiration, her novel becoming a thinly veiled version of Letty’s life—and she encourages Letty to make bad decisions to keep the plot fresh.

Margaret hits all the buttons for a good pretentious novelist you love to hate—after she quits her day job, she doesn’t even have an outline or a story; she expects everything to just flow forth. When a woman in Margaret’s writing class brightly declares that she doesn’t care if her novel ever gets published or not, Margaret scoffs: “Obviously, she said this only to protect her feelings in the face of possible future rejection. A novel had to be published; otherwise it was pointless” (105). She doesn’t even realize how long the publishing process would take, which becomes a plot point as things quickly race to the bottom in the climax. Her delusions of grandeur, especially coupled with the patient rationality of her husband, are darkly funny to watch. Letty, whom we mostly see in her own letters (more on that in a moment), is a solidly nice person at the end of her rope—pretending to be rich is not where she wanted to be at this time of her life, especially as a full-time mother.

All is Vanity is a cynically funny novel, deriving most of its humor from Margaret’s delusions of grandeur and Letty’s increasingly desperate attempts to keep up appearances, as well as her snarky comments. In fact, Letty is a fantastic writer, and I really loved Schwarz’s choice to reign in the stylistic potential of Margaret’s voice in favor of Letty’s—it really adds to the fact that Margaret appears to be someone who has no business trying to force out a novel. It’s her moments of paranoia and insight that make us laugh, not the way she phrases them, while Letty blithely declares that she traces “the loss of civility in modern society to adults’ efforts to hold on to their youth by instructing three-year-olds to call them by their first names” (189). But Letty’s skill raises questions that the structure of the novel exacerbates.

Because Letty’s letters were well-written and fun to read, I thought this novel would end with Letty writing a book about the events of the novel and rescuing herself, elevating herself from Margaret’s sidekick (well, at least in Margaret’s head). But Letty’s skill is never commented on, even by the jealously vigilant Margaret, who takes every comment about her book as a personal judgement on her. The uneven structure of the book makes me think that Letty’s letters used to be passages just written from Letty’s perspective. The book starts off alternating between Margaret and Letty’s perspectives, but Margaret soon dominates the narrative, with Letty appearing only in her passages. She finally gets a few passages to herself towards the end, but only because Schwartz couldn’t find another way to keep the tension up. All is Vanity is good enough, funny enough, and brimming with enough literary schadenfreude that it’s not a huge deal, but it’s still jarring and a little disappointing.

Bottom line: All is Vanity is a cynically enjoyable piece of literary schadenfreude, although the structure is uneven and occasionally questionable. A solid choice.

I rented this book from the public library.

  • Schwarz, Christina. All is Vanity. New York; Doubleday, 2002.

2 thoughts on “Review: All is Vanity

  1. The uneven structure of the book makes me think that Letty’s letters used to be passages just written from Letty’s perspective.

    Interesting hypothesis. It reminds me of how, while reading David Weber’s later novels, his enormous blocks of dry, clunky dialogue led me to suspect that he was just taking his story notes and adding quotation marks at strategic points.

  2. A pretty good takedown of literary delusion. I watch it occasionally to keep my aspiring writer-head from getting too bigheaded.

    This sounds interesting. Sad that it ended so weakly.

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