Tag Archives: Olivia Goldsmith

Pen Pals, Olivia Goldsmith

Dutton, 2002, 360 pages, C$35.99 hc, ISBN 0-525-94644-6

With the untimely demise of Olivia Goldsmith in early 2004, we can expect her literary output to become a finite set (allowing for the usual posthumous publications). As a reader who likes to make sweeping generalizations about one’s life work, this places me in an advantageous position: I just have to “complete the collection” and I’ll be ready for a scathing assessment. I’m not there yet, but Pen Pals ends up being Goldmith’s last novel published in her lifetime (with Dumping Billy already in the publishing pipeline), leading to a cautious preliminary assessment.

Unfortunately, the pattern of Goldsmith’s book follows the typical downward arc. From her capable debut with The First Wives’ Club (1992, adapted in a movie, etc.), Goldsmith toned down the “female revenge fantasy” aspect of her first novel to produce a trio of rather moralistic-but-enjoyable docu-fiction studying different industries, from fashion (Fashionably Late) to TV/cinema (Flavour of the Month) to the publishing world (The Bestseller) As the nineties grew to a close, she went back to (poor) female revenge fantasies with Young Wives (2000). Pen Pals ends up being a mixture of both female revenge fantasy and docu-fiction.

This time around, poor Jenifer Spenser is the victim of a plot hatched by her male bosses: She takes the rap for corporate malfeasance, goes through what is anticipated to be an abortive trial and walks away free in exchange for future considerations. Alas, as you may guess, things don’t go as planned and she ends up serving three-to-five in the pen. Ideal conditions for a revenge plot and a study of the carceral environment? Why, of course: Within pages, Jennifer meets her crew, suffers through the American prison system, engineers a corporate takeover, toughens up and ends up punishing her no-good traitorous boyfriend. Good times, good times.

As pure entertainment, Pen Pals sustains interest much better than Young Wives (which got old really fast), providing at least the basic requirements of that sort of books. But it’s not quite as fascinating as her previous docu-fiction because the sense of wilful deceit is far greater than it was in, say, Flavour of the Month: Despite a few bad moments early on, prison life turns out to be a blast once snappier outfits are delivered. If we were to believe Goldsmith’s characters, most women in prison are victims of the system, innocent wallflowers that either killed their men when they deserved it, or got lifelong sentences for selling pot to their ailing kids. The few violent and mentally disturbed prisoners can be safely isolated in their own wing (they, of course, are nothing like the heroines of the novel.) Once prison management gets its act together, all can live in peace and harmony.

Pardon me as I raise an eyebrow.

Now, it is true that I don’t know much about the subject, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that writing a feel-good novel in a prison environment just begs for selective vision. Even Goldsmith acknowledges as such in the after-word. What compounds this basic problem, of course, is Goldsmith’s knee-jerk repetition of the female revenge theme. While there are ways to make it palatable and not too derivative (see her docu-fiction trilogy for examples), it doesn’t even take ten chapters for Pen Pals to fall into familiar plot templates.

Goldsmith should be applauded for at least trying to raise awareness of problems related to the modern justice system, the increasing privatization of prisons and the plight of prisoners in an overburdened, underfunded environment. But really, the vehicle she has built to share her concerns actively works against what she’s saying: Whoever remembers Pen Pals weeks after reading it won’t recall an impassioned plea for better prisons: They’ll either remember a heart-warming tale of female empowerment, or a bad novel.

What’s equally worrisome is that Goldmith’s latter work itself will be remembered more as bad fiction than good entertainment.

Young Wives, Olivia Goldsmith

Harper Collins, 2000, 512 pages, C$37.95 hc, ISBN 0-06-107553-2

Even trashy authors have their days off.

I haven’t been shy, in the past, in expressing my satisfaction with Olivia Goldsmith’s oeuvre. From her debut with the revenge fantasy The First Wives’ Club to her latter send-ups of entire industries, Goldsmith has always aimed for the lowest common denominator, but with such calculated shrewdness that it was difficult to be overly critical of her cheerfully moralistic bent, or receptive to accusations of slight misandry.

After Young Wives, I’m not so sure.

The first strike against this novel is its similarity to The First Wives’ Club. Once again, we have a trio of women betrayed by their husbands, teaming up to take revenge. While the specifics are different (among other things, these wives are not ridiculously rich), they’re close enough that another writer would have been tarred with accusations of “rip-off!” had they tried the same thing. But, hey, if you can’t steal from yourself, who can you steal from?

But the next strike against Young Wives is the banality of its premise. Books like Fashionably Late and The Bestseller skewered industries such as (respectively) fashion and publishing, while The First Wives’s Club had an implicit element of originality in its depiction of “First Wives” commonalities, Young Wives has none of that. One wife is cheated upon by her upwardly mobile husband; another struggles to support her children despite a lazy partner; a third discovers that her husband is implicated in shady activities. Ordinary stories, all, without much in terms of unifying force. Rather than focus her satiric pen against something concrete, Goldsmith scatters herself in multiple directions.

This, perhaps inevitably, leads to the third major problem with the novel, which is its lopsided pacing, which begins at a snail’s pace and then only picks up very late in the novel. The disproportionate length of “Ring One” (303 pages) versus “Ring Two” (40) is emblematic of the problems. Heck; one wife doesn’t even get discover that her husband is a dirty scoundrel until halfway through the novel. While it is true that tepid pacing has always been a problem with Goldsmith’s novels, this one is worse than other given the lack of focus: At least books like The Bestseller could fill up the first third with details about the publishing industry.

These three strikes duly noted, a lot of stuff about Young Wives suddenly become harder to gloss over. The misandry, obviously: In addition to the trite and explicit epigrams (“Men are mostly dogs and marital diplomacy is all about saying ‘nice doggie’ until you find a damn rock” [P.305]), the constant barrage of failed marriages in this book is somewhat disheartening. (All of these failures, alas, are the men’s fault) I’m a cynic, damn it, but some things are too depressing. Constant “dogs are better than men because…” jokes and the harsh revenges don’t help the atmosphere, and neither do the caricatures taking place of characterizations when comes the time to define the male antagonists. I’m a bit surprised about this, really, because I’ve never had such a problem with Goldsmith’s other books: This one just rubbed me the wrong way.

There are other problems here and there: The funding of a lazy husband’s lavish divorce lawyer is never explained. Some expressions are repeated too many times. Contrivances abound, from abrupt wife-beating to a custody trial that simply rings false. Goldsmith never convinces in describing characters that are black and/or poor. Ironically enough, this book concludes on an unlawful act, leaving an unpleasant taste that makes me want to take back everything nasty I’ve said about Goldsmith’s moralistic universes.

In short, this has to be my least favourite of Goldsmith’s novel so far. Now it remains to be seen whether this is a fluke, or if the other novels I haven’t read from her are as disappointing. Oh, please let this be a fluke, a day off, a “message” novel that went awry…

The First Wives’ Club, Olivia Goldsmith

Poseidon Press, 1992, 441 pages, C$25.00 hc, ISBN 0-671-74693-6

As a science-fiction geek, a techno-nerd, a cynic, heck, a young man, I’m not exactly the poster-perfect fan for Olivia Goldsmith’s oeuvre. But look closer: Not only will I admit a deep romantic streak, but Goldsmith’s books aren’t quite your usual run-of-the-mill romantic fiction for women.

All of the reasons why are obvious in The First Wives Club, Goldsmith’s first published novel. (and the one most likely to be remembered given its status as a mildly successful film back in 1996) All the ingredients that would later surface in what I’ve read of hers (from Fashionably Late to The Bestseller) are all there: the frank language, the adult content, the heavy-handed morality, the use of strong female protagonists, the delightful prose style… For a novel, it’s a pretty good read. For a first novel it’s even more impressive.

The main dramatic arc (though it would be more appropriate to speak of a comic arc) is straight female-empowerment stuff: Dumped by their husbands for younger, more vapid second wives, our heroic trio decides to get mad and get even. Add to that the new romantic interests of the trio and their ex-husbands, the usual gallery of helpful secondary characters (including the de-rigueur flamboyant homosexual confidante) and you’ve got a cast of dozens with plenty of potential for social satire. There’s a “no trophy” icon embedded in the binding of the Pantheon Press hardcover edition, and it effectively summarizes the take-no-prisoner attitude of the protagonists. Hell hath no fury…

Some may be tempted to describe the book as man-hating propaganda. But those tedious pundits would probably be the kind of people to protest the oppression of the modern male, and you won’t get two guesses as to what I think of those people. (Or why they’d be better off in self-assertion therapy.) The truth is that the Wives’ revenge would have been useless if their ex-husbands hadn’t all been crooks and perverts. Sicking the IRS one someone is useless unless there’s real financial trickery involved, right? Painting the antagonists as out-and-out villains may not be especially subtle nor realistic, (nor does it reflect well on our poor heroic trio; what the heck were they thinking when they married these guys?) but it’s not gratuitous man-bashing. Goldsmith, more than in any other of her other books, deals in archetypes. It is, after all, a light-hearted revenge fantasy: It’s not as if knives and squishy body parts are involved.

What is involved, however, is a series of good scenes, especially if you’re a fan of over-the-top bonkbusters. You can almost see the blueprint behind the prose, the conscious attempt to write commercial fiction, the carefully-measured doses of sex and foul language. But scarcely any of that matters once you’re willing to play ball and sympathize with a trio of too-rich women with something to prove. The prose flies, the characters are speedily defined and scarcely any time is lost in attempts at sophistication. The New York social scene takes its lumps and even if there’s something almost annoying in how Goldsmith makes the same points over and over again, it’s hard to be resentful (or even dismissive) when we’re having some much fun.

As a first novel, it’s a good prototype for Goldsmith’s later string of novels. The one thing that seems to have been refined later on is not the heavy-handed moral ending of her stories, but the delightful suspense in knowing if a character will commit to good or evil. Here, everything initially painted as one or another ends up with the same alignment. Latter books would at least allow some latitude in that choice (though appropriate fates would still befall the characters). I can’t help but think that in a latter book, Mort Cushman’s purgatory would have resulted in moral re-alignment, redemption and maybe even a faintly positive ending. Here, well… maybe in the sequel.

All in all, though, it’s a worthwhile fun book, not particularly deep but amusing enough to please anyone looking for a few hours of entertainment. I wonder how the film compares, though…?

Fashionably Late, Olivia Goldsmith

Harper Collins, 1994, 431 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 0-06-017611-3

If the fashion industry mystifies, amuses, annoys or interests you, Fashionably Late ought to prove a delicious reading experience. Pop-fun author Olivia Goldsmith has trashed the acting and publishing professions elsewhere (in Flavour of the Month and The Bestseller, respectively)… but this time she’s got another field to explore, and she proves remarkably adept at presenting both the glory and the misery of haute couture in this novel.

It all revolves around Karen Kahn, fashion designer and owner of her own prestigious label. At first glance, she’s got everything one would want: Money, fame, love and the admiration of her peers. But even as she’s awarded an important industry prize, a doomed man appears (in classic tragic fashion) to warn her that fame is feeling and it can end very, very quickly. As the novel progresses, there are plenty of opportunities for Karen’s world to crumble: her family is packed with dysfunctional relatives, her husband is prone to bouts of moodiness and her business is being courted by a rich buyer. As if that wasn’t enough, Karen is also contemplating her own lineage; though she knows she’s an adopted child, her own biological clock has rung out: Adoption is the only possibility if she wants to raise a child.

Melodramatic stuff, but that’s half the fun of it. Goldsmith can write big fat pop novels like none other, and her professionalism shines throughout the book. The fashion industry is a big and complex beast, and one of Goldsmith’s most successful talent is to manage to slowly reveal it all, from sewing to modelling, in compelling and unobtrusive scenes. Exposition is well-handled , and doesn’t take much to be fascinated by the convincing background details. In many ways, this feels like one of Arthur Hailey’s docu-fictive novels, except that Goldsmith can juggle both plot and documentary with an ease that leaves good old Arthur coughing in the dust.

A large part of this superiority depends on her strong sense of characterization. While Goldsmith can’t be accused of too much ambiguity, she knows exactly what is needed for the type of novel she’s writing. Here, it’s interesting to see the distribution of quirks. While Fashionably Late features several viewpoint characters, it spends most of its time inside Karen’s head. Fittingly enough, the lead protagonist is emotionally bland while her entourage is stuffed with showy supporting characters. This allows the reader to project emotions on the protagonist and be impressed by the actions of others. Good stuff!

While I’m working from an incomplete database (three novels out of nearly a dozen), Goldsmith’s moral storytelling seems ironclad so far. Heroes win; villains are punished. While Fashionably Late isn’t as decisively punitive as, say, Flavour of the Month, it certainly rewards the good guys and promises pain and punishment for the evil ones. The suspense in Goldsmith’s novels isn’t in seeing who wins, but in seeing them err on either good and evil before settling on one alignment and suffering the consequences. Manipulative and populist, maybe, but also decidedly comfortable; reading an Olivia Goldsmith is guaranteed to be a satisfactory, uncomplicated experience.

Satisfactory and amusing, naturally. The prose style is deliciously clear and compelling; while it may take a while to absorb all the characters and the multiple plot threads the novel acquires quite a narrative momentum that does a lot to propel the book forward. Don’t be surprised to read more and more of the book as it advances. The little twists thrown at the end are a bit over-the-top, but that too had become somewhat of a Goldsmith griffe. It’s not as if half of the so-called “twists” can be seen well in advance. (Oh, gee, I wonder what will happen to the baby…?)

As Fashionably Late concludes, it also moves both the protagonist and the reader toward a more balanced view of the fashion industry, after showing both the glamour and the misery, the admiration and the contempt engendered by it. Few will fail to be impressed to see where Karen end up, though some may step back and tut-tut the warm and fuzzy feeling of the conclusion. To those I say shoo, because they obviously haven’t understood the rules of Goldsmith’s universe. It may not be the real world, but it works for me, in a certain fashion.

Flavor or the Month, Olivia Goldsmith

Pocket, 1993, 880 pages, C$8.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-79450-7

One of my favorite new words these days is “bonkbuster”, a term used to describe a novel consciously written to have wide commercial appeal and/through a lot of sex in it. As “blockbusters with a lot of bonking in them” go, I don’t think you can go wrong with Olivia Goldsmith’s Flavor of the Month. It’s pure titillating trash from a clever writer, and it makes no apologies for what it is. And, goodness, sometime it’s just so much fun to read novels like that.

Consciously eschewing literary respectability, Goldsmith focuses her novel on a trio of actresses who will eventually come together in America’s #1 television show. The narrative is told “as if” from one of the nation’s foremost scandal-peddler (think Kitty Kelly, herself referenced on the novel’s first page) in some alternate version of 1993’s America. (Naturally, all characters, executives, studios and movies are fictive and should not be meant to represent real-life equivalents, mostly because their fictional equivalents are so much more interesting.)

In short order, we’re introduced to three very different lead actresses: Sweet dumb Texas blonde Sharleen, bitchy rich L.A. brunette Lila and poor homely red-headed New Yorker Mary Jane. Of the three, it is Mary Jane who emerges as our lead protagonist and the moral center around which the rest of the novel will revolve. She is also the one who -initially, anyway- has to change herself the most in order to attain the pinnacle of fame; thanks to an unexpected influx of money, a bad break-up and some old-fashioned determination, Mary Jane undergoes extensive cosmetic surgery, learns some independence and loses a significant fraction of her body weight. When she emerges from the whole process, she’s beautiful, younger and is known by another name. Loosened in L.A. with more than thirty years’ worth of bitterness in an identity ten officially years younger, she quickly becomes the flavor of the month of the town… but will it last?

I won’t spoil it, but Goldsmith certainly appears to be an extremely moralist novelist. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; after countless so-called “sophisticated” novels in which everything is painted in various shades of ethical grays, it’s refreshing to read a novel in which characters get what they so richly deserve, whatever their moral alignment. Several members of this novel’s cast go from pleasant to unpleasant and blow their last chance at redemption; Goldsmith’s justice is terrible and often none too swift.

Flavor of the Month takes on the whole celebrity/beauty industry with acceptable gusto. Don’t expect a profound statement on the superficiality of today’s entertainment culture, but do be prepared for a few insightful observations here and there. Goldmsith is a professional at her craft, and she know which levers to use in order to get a rise from her readers and when enough’s enough.

Speaking of arousing readers’ interest, there are certainly enough titillating sex scenes, scandalous behavior and lurid details to satisfy even the most sun-burnt beach reader. Above all, Flavor of the Month is a fun novel, and the speed at which anyone will be able to read this hefty tome speaks for itself. It’s delicious, hypnotic, compelling, often hilarious and wildly catty. Though the 1993 details are starting to be dated (some of the celebrity references almost require a companion guide to understand nowadays, so transient is celebrity pop culture), there’s no denying that Flavor of the Month is exactly what you want if ever you need a big thick diversion.

I don’t think I’m the target readership of Goldmisth’s oeuvre, but after The Bestseller and this, I’m more than ready to become a regular reader of hers. It’s fluff, but it’s smooth fluff with a pleasant degree of cleverness. Perfect summer reading!

[January 2004: In an absolutely mind-boggling ironic twist that wouldn’t be out of place in her novels, Olivia Goldsmith died of complications following… plastic surgery. Strange but true; the type of anecdotes in which the death of an author acts as a cornerstone for an entire career. Her first novel, after all, was The First Wives’ Club…]

The Bestseller, Olivia Goldsmith

Harper Collins, 1996, 514 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-06-017822-1

It’s inevitable. After reading a few hundred books, the compulsive reader is not only interested in the stories that the book tell, but in the books themselves. Some become authors; other read about authors.

So, it’s quite a treat to see such a witty and accomplished novelist as Olivia Goldsmith (The First Wives Club) turn her attention on the wonderfully twisted world of New York publishers. Of course, since this is a best-selling novel about best-selling novels, it naturally follows that adultery, crime, punishment, sex, sex, sex, betrayals, horrid incurable diseases, sex, suicides, multimillion contracts and more sex than usual is portrayed here.

In short, The Bestseller is a blast.

At 514 pages, The Bestseller manages to be long and compulsively readable… after a while. The premise is simple: Five books are eventually bought by one of New York’s biggest publishing house. We follow their fates, along with their authors and almost everyone remotely associated with the books’ publication: Editors, agents, librarians and the other members of the family…

Author number one dies in the first pages of The Bestseller: Her mother goes on crusade to publish her daughter’s masterpiece. Author number two is a best-selling romance writer on the decline: Is she going to be able to keep her sanity in addition to the number one spot? Author number three is a young Englishwoman in Italy: Is love or fame the most important thing? Author number four is not only an author, but the publisher himself: Vanity publishing, or honestly good novel? Author number five is a pseudonym for a husband-and-wife collaboration: What happens when the husband “forgets” about his wife and claims the credit?

Then there are the agents (the good and the bad ones), the editors (the good and the bad ones) and the publishers. (again; the good and the bad ones) We visit sales conference, the ABA, bookstores, a few author tours. We read about ghostwriters, famous scandals, publishing lore and wisdom… Truly, The Bestseller tries to reward its reader, who should preferably be a Reader.

Due to the number of plot-lines kept in the air, it does take a while for The Bestseller to cohere. Once it does, however, we’re in for the ride! Goldsmith paints her characters adequately enough to care for them. By the end of the book, it feels like we’ve made new friends.

The Bestseller, however, is rather heavy-handed. As the novel advances, characters are further divided in two mutually exclusive camps: The Good characters will get most of what they want. The Bad characters will get what they deserve. Melodrama happens, but strangely it does not harm the book. In fact, The Bestseller would have been much less enjoyable with moral ambiguity. Everyone likes a happy ending, and it’s refreshing to be in a narrative where everything happens as it should happen.

Escape reading? At its best! Goldsmith’s prose is undemanding yet not without a certain elegance. Whatever happens is clearly described (aside from one unfortunately intentional “Let’s hide the gender of this character” misstep.) and there are very few barriers between the reader and the story.

A few audacious in-jokes pepper this book, further rewarding the attentive reader. But most will be content just to read page after page, sinking in the story like it should be with any big, good bestseller.