The Magazine

Happy at Last

From maker of jeans to ripper of bodices.

May 11, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 32 • By JUDY BACHRACH
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Obsession

An Erotic Tale

by Gloria Vanderbilt

Ecco, 160 pp., $16.99

A Google search reveals that Gloria Vanderbilt, who is Anderson Cooper's mom and also a person whose name could once be found in cursive form on the back pockets of moderately expensive jeans, is 85. I shall just have to take its word on this, because Gloria Vanderbilt's newest book is supposedly about high-octane, addictive sex among the wealthy.

Yes, even those who went to Miss Porter's School and married men who had (according to Ms. Vanderbilt) "something indefinable" about them can fall into this pit hole, and without a backward glance.

The next thing you know they're wearing, according to the author, "a mask fashioned from the wings of doves and white marabou feathers." Oh--and "a white strapless tulle dress." You don't, I hope, have to be told what happens next.

I know I'm acting all worldly here, but frankly, I didn't understand much of this novel. I am not only talking about the sex part, either--although that, too, was so complicated I could make neither (and I am not punning here) head nor tail of it. The whole book is thoroughly confusing. One minute some hooker wears "white caftans sewn by nuns in Florence." The next the Florentine nuns have been ruthlessly discarded along with their native country, and the very same hooker reappears in chartreuse jersey wool and an "artfully placed" Hermès scarf. It makes the reader despair of fidelity.

Equally disconcerting: the tone of menace that permeates Obsession, starting on page five. It is here that we learn that, during 10 long years of marriage, whenever a prosperous architect named Talbot (yes! Just like the wine!) returned from an alleged business trip to his high-born wife Priscilla, he "always demanded to make love, instantly, before even taking off his coat." Call me fussy, but for the other 155 pages all I could think of was the couple's cleaning bills. A decade of cohabitation, and every time he comes home in the winter, spring, or even the fall, each evening when the smallest chill is in the air, a costly article of clothing is ruined. It is almost with relief that one learns, also early on, that at the end of that decade Talbot actually died--during an anniversary party, interestingly.

Gloria Vanderbilt means, I know, to have us dwell on other matters, for instance the godlike abilities, sexual and otherwise, of her characters--"Of course he was a genius," she writes of the late Talbot--but in all of Obsession there is scant evidence of intelligent life. Au contraire. When the ambulance arrives, Priscilla immediately settles herself "on a stretcher .  .  . as though she too had died."

Perhaps the author is aware that readers, as opposed to architects, tend to be a cynical crowd, because what she lacks in substance or credible detail she makes up for with fist-pounding insistence: "I was proud knowing I made order out of the chaos swirling around that genius brain of his."

Anyway, how bright Talbot actually is isn't really the point of this novel. The point--as you've probably guessed by now--is that, before dying, he was messing around. Yes. With some S&M babe who is also into--writing letters. I cannot tell you how touching I found this last detail (well actually, both details, to be truthful). In the past year I have learned of two instances in which wives discovered their husbands' affairs by perusing their emails. (Reader, change your password.) But long letters, accurately spelled? Written by someone who lives in California? On thick paper engraved with "a small but costly crown and, under this, a bee"? Stuck inside envelopes "lined with magenta tissue"?

There's lots of stuff Obsession is missing: a plot, a sense of humor, and a
storyline, for starters. But nothing, in my opinion, is more glaring an oversight than a voluble S&M mistress without a BlackBerry. Small wonder that Priscilla's first impulse on reading her rival's outpourings (after first erupting with a passage from Goethe on the subject of truth) is to wax lyrical and even platonic.

But what truth? Was this Talbot's--that when sexual boundaries no longer exist it [sic] frees us to integrate our personalities into the boundaries the world expects, the demands it imposes. This filled me with terror.

Yeah, and just imagine how I felt.

Judy Bachrach is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair.