Book Review: All is Vanity

All is Vanity
Christina Schwarz

Ah, the struggling writer trying to get published. All is Vanity is one of those books. I actually tend to enjoy this kind of storyline, but wonder to myself while I am reading them whether or not the author will ever be able to write about characters who do something other than try to be writers. I think about Ann Patchett or Margaret Atwood or any other writer who really knows how to create fictional worlds that are more than just embellished autobiography.

Perhaps I am so aware of this kind of writing because it is probably all I would ever be capable of. When I attempted to write fiction it was all very autobiographical. I figured if I made the main character something other than a writer I could get away with it without ever having to admit borrowing heavily from my own life. A popular method for lazy or unimaginative writers. Another parallel between All is Vanity and my own feeble attempts at writing a novel is the fact that Schwarz’s main character is a thirtysomething writer who decides to skip over taking classes, or starting with short stories, or any other activity that might actually help her become a writer. Like I did, she also thinks that it is just a matter of applying yourself. Sit down and write. It will come. Margaret’s delusional goals, however, are different from mine in that she thinks she is going to actually write a great novel with all kinds of layered meaning and profound imagery. I never thought I would even try to do that.

But enough about me. I enjoyed All is Vanity but there is much that annoyed me as well. The basic plotline is that Margaret ends up using long emails from her best friend Letty as the basis for the novel she is writing. She takes whole scenes from her Letty’s life and writes them up as fiction without telling her. What’s worse is that she actually encourages Letty’s profligate behavior in real life to make the “fictional” Lexie more interesting. You can see where this one is going from about a mile away. You know at some point, that Letty is going to find out, blah, blah, blah. Kind of writes itself from that point on. All is Vanity also included lots (and lots) of epistolary material (email) that include a fair amount “quoted” dialogue. Regular readers will know that this is one of my pet peeves. People just don’t write emails that way.

Schwarz does do an amazing job showing through Letty how so many Americans have gotten themselves into such deep financial sh*t. The interesting thing is that Schwarz wrote about it about five years before the housing market meltdown made it impossible for folks to ignore their mountains of debt.

But finally, to show you just what a class act Schwarz is (although it might be her publisher’s fault) I am going to quote, in full, the author blurb inside the back cover of the book:

Christina Schwarz is the author of Drowning Ruth, a bestseller in both hardcover and paperback, which was selected for Oprah’s Book Club and optioned by Wes Craven for Miramax.She lives in New Hampshire.

Wow, where to start with that illuminating biographical sketch? Let me try, this could be translated to:

I sell lots of books, no really, I sell a mother lode of books, the numbers would make you blush, and by the way it might be made into a movie so I will eventually sell even more books. Oh, and I live in New Hampsire (big house, lots of land).

All really is vanity.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: All is Vanity

  1. Peter S. November 8, 2009 / 7:18 am

    Hi, Thomas! I'm curious about your aversion to epistolary sections in the novel. Is it the epistolary style per se that you're not too fond of? Why? Or is it just the way the emails are written in this novel?

    By the way, thank you for the pictures of your bookshelves that you've sent. I'll be sure to post them soon! I think part of the fun is reading the comments of what people think of your bookshelves.


  2. savidgereads November 8, 2009 / 8:48 am

    I am not a big fan of epistolary stylized novels either so think all in all this is one I would skip. I do have Drowning Ruth though and haven't read it, maybe I should?


  3. Thomas November 8, 2009 / 11:26 am

    Peter: I actually do like epistolary writing. My peeve is when the so-called letters (or email in this case) don't actually read like letters. They contain all kinds of dialog that most people would never include in a letter. They might communicate the same general information but typically do not recount conversations verbatim. I wrote a little about epistolary writing toward the end of this post:

    Simon: If the letters truly read like letters and not just normal text narrative dressed up to be letters I don't mind the epistolary style. There are things to like about this book–it did make me chuckle in a few places–but there is plenty to not like as well. It does not make me interested in reading Drowning Ruth, but I didn't hate it.


  4. Lorin November 9, 2009 / 8:20 pm

    Any plans to re-attempt the novel writing? This is the month to do it, of course. (though catching up now might be tricky.)

    Speaking of epistolary novels, I just started Guernsey Literary & Potato Pie Peel Society (phew! what a mouthful!) last night. So far, I like it. But I agree with you – I am suspicious when there are quotes in a so-called letter.


  5. Thomas November 11, 2009 / 12:49 pm

    Lorin: When you started the novel writing month thing, I thought about doing it. But then I thought I would wait until next year. I wasn't ready for it this time around.

    And I meant to mention in my review that the subject of this book was perfect for the month.


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