Gulped this down in one sitting as a salve to the burn I was getting from reading Nancy Jo Sales’ amazing and infuriating book American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers. Schulman’s book is a dreamy and fun story about NYC in 1958, at the intersection of two fifty-year-olds’ lives: Bette, a white secretary from Ohio who’d been in the Village for thirty years, and Earl, a gay black actor who worked at a slaughterhouse day job to make ends meet. The two are neighbors who meet up for dinner every night, battling loneliness through each other.
The calm, smooth current of their lives is interrupted by the arrival of Bette’s young cousin Hortense, who moves in with her sizable allowance and begins taking acting classes. Around this same time, the atmosphere at Bette’s workplace changes significantly as well, as the advertising company decides to move into television and brings in dynamo consultant Valerie to whip things into shape. Things start to break apart when Hortense moves in with Earl as he inexplicably shuns Bette and thinks to saddle himself with a rich white wife as a way to make it through life. A TV is delivered to Bette’s apartment right before the book’s Intermission, which Bette leaves in the middle of the room, unplugged, as a table.
The second act is a whirlwind of machinations as Bette plots about how to get Earl back, in the process confronting her now-paunchy and dilapidated former lover (who married her cousin and is the father of Hortense). Bette also slyly buys up half of the company she’s working for, which she reveals at a critical moment where she’d been almost fired by Valerie. The end is too tidy, the perpetual problem of wrapping up a book, wherein the book’s author (Sarah Schulman) makes her appearance as a baby crying in the building and bringing Earl and Bette back together as friends. A final beef is with the “A Note on Style” appended to the end of the book wherein Schulman gives us four additional pages detailing her influences, the rails on which she built this story, revealing that she wove in two lines from Balzac’s Cousin Bette into the tale, “I leave them to the literary detectives to unearth.” Gag. This is worse than a book with multiple introductions and prefaces, where the author breaks through the fourth wall to smirk about how clever she is.