by Jennifer Close, Knopf, 2011; 294 pages; $24.95
It would be just too easy to term this winning first novel “chick lit.” Though it perhaps comes perilously close on occasion, Girls in White Dresses rarely descends into bathos. It is just one wickedly observed first novel, a book that revels in contemporary city life, revealing it with a knowing flourish.
Isabella, Lauren and Mary are college chums who find themselves in New York City during the current economic downturn. Isabella is working for a company that compiles mailing lists, though she is desperate to enter publishing. Mary is a lawyer who cannot quite figure out the crush she has on her superior. Lauren bides her time working as a waitress in a bar where she spends more time than she’d like fending off the advances of employees and customers alike.
Their personal lives aren’t in any better shape. None of them seems able to find an unselfish partner: Isabella’s is constantly picking defensive arguments, Mary’s loves his mother a little too much, and Lauren’s makes vodka sodas for her as she desperately waits her tables.
If all that weren’t enough, there are all those summer weddings — other people’s weddings: dresses to be bought, showers to make it through and wedding parties to endure.
Not that life is perfect when serious relationships take over the lives of the three friends. Isabella becomes part of a publishing firm, but her Mr. Right wants her to move to Boston since he has been downsized. Lauren becomes a real estate agent whose significant other may not be as perfect as he seems. Mary marries, has two kids and still must fight her mother-in-law for her husband’s attention, a battle that results in some of the funniest scenes in the book.
What each of the friends finally comes to realize is that life isn’t as perfect as it is for the “girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes” that are part of the Oscar Hammerstein lyric that gives the book its title. They come to realize that, where “white dresses” are concerned, a nip and a tuck is often desirable here and there.
What Jennifer Close has written, really, is a novel about those adjustments. Girls in White Dresses is very much about New York City and about the current economic downturn. It’s about the changes that might be necessary and those that are not. It’s about friendship and heart, and it insists that relationships, if they’re solid enough, can withstand just about anything.
Steven Whitton is a professor of English at Jacksonville State University.