Desperation makes people do crazy things, as does the quest for success. So when Margaret, the protagonist of Christina Schwarz’s All is Vanity, becomes desperate for success, she’s determined not to let anything stand in her way – not even her best friend. That is ostensibly the core of All is Vanity, but it’s much more complex than that. The story starts as Margaret quits her teaching job to write a novel. However, she’s lacking a few things -– publishing experience, for one; an idea for another.
When the well of inspiration remains dry for months, Margaret gets frustrated and faces constant embarrassment and humiliation when friends, family and her husband’s snooty co-workers ask her how the book is going. Meanwhile, her childhood friend Letty has her own problems. A stay-at-home mom living a relatively modest life in California, she constantly feels inferior to her neighbors and acquaintances.
She pours her heart out to Margaret in numerous phone calls and e-mails. Over time, Margaret realizes that the great American novel she’s been searching for has been hiding in the soul of her best friend. Hoping to spark more inspiration, Margaret gently prods Letty into making poor financial choices, just to see what will happen.
Margaret is sure that its her influence leading her friend down the path to ruin, but Letty has her own dark side that Margaret can’t even guess at. Schwartz tells the story mostly from Margaret’s point of view, but occasionally switches perspective to Letty, just to hint that Margaret’s perception of her friend may not be entirely accurate.
The book is literate and funny, cleverly skewering the delicate balance of most female friendships. Margaret sees herself as the dominant force in her friendship with Letty, whom she regards as a pliant sidekick. Letty does look up to Margaret, but is plenty capable of making her own bad choices, thank you.
However, much like Margaret’s novel, Schwarz’s takes a little while to get to its point. The reader wades through pages and pages of Margaret’s failed, demoralizing attempt to get a part-time job to subsidize her novel-writing before getting to the story’s core conflict. Still, Schwarz gets points for her deeply ironic ending, etched in acid. It’s the kind of novel that makes you laugh and cringe in equal amounts.