Summer's Last Beach Read
Toward the end of my previous incarnation as a book publisher and editor, I seem to recall having lunch with the erudite and charming Michael Thomas at The Four Seasons restaurant in New York, to discuss an idea he had for a novel. I tried to avoid doing this kind of thing, normally—I don’t mind reading novels, you understand, but I don’t like being told about them.
I’m not a snob—if Tolstoy were alive and tried to tell me the story of Anna Karenina across the luncheon table (“She’s married to this cold and distant fellow, she has an affair with a dashing army officer, see? Then she leaves her husband and children for him, and when it doesn’t work out she throws herself under a train...”), I would slip into a state in which my mind was set on “sleep,” like a computer.
The pleasure lies not in the cookies, but in the pattern the crumbs make when the cookies crumble.
However, I would always have made an exception for Michael Thomas, whose conversation and range of interests is amazing, and who has had more careers than any one person is entitled to: columnist, museum curator, novelist, investment banker, and I’m only just getting started.
Anyway, he talked at length about the moral and constitutional ramifications of no-fault divorce law, a subject which doesn’t normally grip my attention (I’ve been through one divorce, and don’t remember the experience with any pleasure), though if anybody could make it interesting, it would be Michael Thomas. The normal reaction of a publisher when faced with an author with a bee in his bonnet is to grab the check and run. To be fair, I think Michael picked up the check, so if I didn’t thank him properly for lunch then, I would like to do so now.
I am also happy to say that despite any doubts I may have had then, Thomas seems to have brought it off in his latest book, Love & Money (the ampersand is correct, and makes a point). It’s a beach read, but a superior and elegant one, and if you have any beach time left, it would be a good book to take with you. At least its grownup characters don’t drink blood, which is more than you can say of most of the fiction bestseller list. In fact, it’s really a roman à clef, with a number of recognizable characters: a married woman who just might remind you of Martha Stewart, her movie-producer husband, a soulless media mogul (no Australian accent, so no, not that one), a conniving cardinal, a smart divorce lawyer, and a woman who controls a huge family business and is eager to build a museum that will rival the Met.
The game is not so much in the characters themselves—the Martha Stewart lookalike is the strongest and most interesting of them—but in the complex way in which a single, almost random, unpremeditated event brings them all together. In other words, the pleasure lies not in the cookies, but in the pattern the crumbs make when the cookies crumble, as it’s clear they will from page 19 on. (The first 18 pages are a long sex scene, and it’s pretty good as sex scenes go, but as the former editor of Harold Robbins, Irving Wallace, Shirley Conran, Jackie Collins, Joan Collins, and several more, I have long since been inoculated to the obligatory sex scene of popular fiction, most of which read as if they had been cut and pasted out of a menu of pre-prepared sex scenes, and have the same relationship to sexual excitement that frozen food has to freshly prepared food.)
Really, what Michael Thomas is good at is writing about people who loom larger than life, the kind of people who make news in the columns, who make deals in the millions or billions of dollars, and whose Rolodexes contain the telephone numbers of people the reader can’t imagine ever calling on the phone.
In a way, Love & Money reads a little anachronistically, given the events of the last couple of years. Although there a number of hasty references to the collapse of the economy, hardly anybody in the book seems to be really troubled by it. To paraphrase Marie Antoinette, it is the world avant le deluge, rather than après that is represented here, the characters still living in the late 1990s. The people in this book are still selling companies for billions of dollars, flying the corporate jet down to an island retreat and all that jazz, with the result that Love & Money reads a little more like the past than the present. Thomas writes for Vanity Fair and lunches at The Four Seasons, so it may have escaped his notice, like the flamboyantly voluptuous bejeweled lady quaffing Champagne in the famous Peter Arno cartoon whose husband says to a guest, “I never told her about the Depression. She would have worried.” But I think not—he has artfully inserted a few reminders that Chicken Little was right: The sky has fallen and Michael Thomas knows it, even if his characters don’t.
Never mind. One of the prerequisites of beach reading is that the novel should be amusing, escapist, and have a happy ending, and this one delivers on all three. Also admirable is the way Thomas manages to weave into it his idée fixe about no-fault divorce, which a lesser man might have reserved for a short nonfiction polemic. He is very skillful at surprising the reader with the way in which the waves emerge from a single small event—a married woman has torrid sex with a man who is not her husband. It’s only when we realize that this woman, Connie Grange, is a fabulously successful brand name, and that her husband had not only guessed about the affair but made a video of it, and that billions of dollars are riding on the fact that she has a morals clause in her contract, and that her home state of Connecticut is toying with no-fault divorce, which would prevent her husband Clifford from collecting millions in a divorce case—only, in short, once the ripples start to emanate from what seems at first a relatively harmless and entirely out-of-character assignation, that the story picks up speed and shows us how a single, simple, unplanned and ill-fated slip can put huge political issues and vast amounts of money into play. Will it shatter Connie’s marriage and her valuable public image? Will it make her husband Clifford bankable in Hollywood again? Damage the career of an ambitious cardinal, and affect the Holy See’s position on divorce? Allow a smart divorce lawyer to at last get his once-in-a-lifetime chance to argue a case before the Supreme Court? Enable Anabelle to parlay her family corporation into a great museum—to have her cake and eat it too?
Unlike most beach novels, this one is full of erudition, interesting ideas and a certain placid savoir faire, as if Mr. Thomas is not trying to rush his fences, as we say in the hunt field, or present the reader with a nerve-jangling thrill every five minutes. You can read on cruise control, until you are sharply brought up by a surprise, and find yourself thinking, I would never have thought that.
Well, I wouldn’t have either, at lunch, way back when.