|Portobello Books Ltd|
the guardian Fri 01 August 2008
I have a tendency to be disappointed by the most well-rewarded female columnists: specifically, Bridget Jones's Diary and Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City. Recalling Freud's agonised question, I would look at the TV incarnation of the latter and ask myself, aghast: "Is this what women want?"
So it was a pleasure to come across this, enterprisingly plucked from across the Atlantic by the rather groovy publishers Portobello. As I have commented before, it is the job of a good writer to familiarise readers with modes of experience quite alien to them, and I Was Told There'd Be Cake does that. I did not know what it was like to be a young, attractive, intelligent woman living in Manhattan; I might have tried to imagine it once or twice, but been scalded so horribly by envy that I gave up after three seconds. But I Was Told ... (isn't that a lovely title? It bespeaks a very winning self-aware petulance) is very engaging.
Reading these essays - 15 of them, of varying lengths - is like watching a number of unusually thoughtful episodes of Friends. (Don't sniff like that. You liked Friends.) The first piece - "The Pony Problem" - begins with the line: "As most New Yorkers have done, I have given serious and generous thought to the state of my apartment should I get killed during the day." Which more or less hooked me there and then; and when the source of her anxiety is revealed as a stash of toy plastic ponies in the drawer beneath her sink - you'll find out why - I must admit to becoming rather intrigued.
The pieces are, largely, extended vignettes from Manhattan life. A weird neighbour; a terrible first job; moving apartment and locking yourself out of both the old one and the new one on the same day (finding the building superintendent who, she hears, has a spare key, she asks him, in a neat little Ghostbusters reference - it's a New York film, you see - "Are you the Keymaster?" He doesn't get it); trying to work out who left a turd on your bathroom carpet; these are all grist to Sloane Crosley's mill, and it is quite an achievement of tone and pacing that she never comes across as irritating, or arch, or overly self-obsessed. Even when she muses on her unusual name ("Number of Sloane Square and/or Sloane Ranger jokes made by acutely observant British people: 457") we do not get the feeling that she is telling us more about herself than we feel we need to know. There is also a streak of cruelty to her: how did "Francine" feel when she read about her ghastly wedding, and how Crosley felt about her misguided decision to make her maid of honour? And quietly rumbling away beneath it all are the echoes, the faint but persistent aftershocks, of 9/11. She does not exploit this; but the diaries of the more articulate Manhattanites are going to be worth scrutinising for some time to come because of it. Have things got back to normal? Yes, largely. Although it would appear that New Yorkers are being somewhat nicer to each other these days.
Usually, it is a good thing when a reviewer does some research. In fact, it could be said to be mandatory. However, in Crosley's case, things are different. This is because it turns out that far from being the ditsy, insecure but articulate loser presented to us ("she also wrote the cover story for the worst-selling issue of Maxim in the magazine's history", says her author biography), it turns out that she is in fact a wildly successful publicist, and the American edition of this book has been sitting in the upper reaches of the bestseller lists since about April. I had worked out from internal evidence that she was young - according to Wikipedia, it's her 30th birthday tomorrow - but somehow knowing that she's young and doing ridiculously well for herself might make the older reader want to eat his or her own liver out of sheer envy.
Just try to put such trivial concerns out of your mind. A good prose style is a good prose style, however absurdly well rewarded it is. Pretend you haven't read the previous paragraph and you'll love this.