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News

My Manny problem

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If you’ve missed all the bright orange book ads and have ducked all the media coverage (New York, The New Yorker, Vogue), you’re one of the few readers who hasn’t heard of The Manny, alleged to be this summer’s Devil Wears Prada: chick-lit for the beach, right-coast division. It’s a simple story: Glam Park Avenue working wife juggles her high-powered network news job, her sullen, money-obsessed lawyer husband, and three adorable children. She hires a manny, a male nanny, to assist with her unhappy son. Hijinks ensue.

Last week, The Manny came to Beverly Hills for a book party on Rodeo Drive. And where better to throw a party for a book that digs into the world of upper crusties than the Ralph Lauren store, that haven of ersatz preppiness and manufactured good taste?

Contrary to my expectations, the party didn’t annoy me, but the book did. Author Holly Peterson is ultra connected: Dad Pete Peterson recently took The Blackstone Group public, netting more than $1.9 billion, and even more recently bought Hilton Hotels; stepdad Michael Carlisle’s Inkwell Management literary agency represents her; stepmom Joan Ganz Cooney founded the Children’s Television Workshop, home of Sesame Street; mom Sally Peterson is a psychologist. The New York partyfeatured Barbara Walters, perennial party girl Candace Bushnell, author of Sex and the City, and a slew of socialites.

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The Beverly Hills party was much lower key. Holly Peterson thanked each person individually for attending. Dominick Dunne was there, resembling an elderly monk who ministers to only the very best souls. The party’s host, director Joel Schumacher, looked like the Dean of Esoteric Studies from an obscure college. More to the point, the champagne was flowin' and the cocktail snacks were aplenty. So what annoys me so much about The Manny? To start, this is yet another volume of slapdash girly fiction by an apparently intelligent adult woman who should know better.

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The Manny reeks of the breathy prose of chick lit, an entire genre that assumes women’s expectations of men are at the teenage level. Let's cut to the chase, when after hundreds of pages of delayed gratification, Jamie finally does the manny: "He lay on top of me now, and then, straddling me, tore off his shirt. Oh my God, that chest. He looked so happy, like he was having a really, really good time."

Gawkerhas flayed that awful passage to death, but much of the writing in the book is just as bad, featuring awkward, ill-thought-out locutions, and substituting endless rhetorical statements and questions (e.g. “I couldn’t believe …”) for depth. Peterson klonks the reader over the head with information, setting the scene with endless details of appropriate wardrobe, after-school activities, charity events, and leopard throw pillows. As a reader, I was left wanting emotional details that just weren’t there.

Her characters are flat and self-obsessed; the husband is a suited bully who criticizes Jamie’s body way past the point I’d’ve drop-kicked him across Central Park. Jamie’s flaws don’t inspire sympathy because the few glimpses we get beneath her shiny surface are clichés. She personifies the endless curse of constant self-criticism that chick-lit heroines tend to have, so that even when they triumph against adversity -- nasty bosses, nasty husbands – they can’t really appreciate their success. Jamie is an experienced TV producer, but doesn’t take credit for her own cleverness or intelligence; she is constantly rushing around giving her power away to any and all the men around her.

So when Jamie finally ends up with the manny, there’s no reason to cheer, really. She transfers her emotional dependence from a wealthy, well-born attorney to a hot software entrepreneur who – surprise! – has just struck it big. There’s no struggling on her own, very little loss of capital, and no insight into what led her to marry such a creep in the first place. Was she dazzled by his money and his family? We never really learn the answer to that question. Near the end of the book, the manny tells her she needs time for herself before they are together. Okay, she agrees; but her notion of self is again handed to her by a man. Girl needs to get her shit together on her own, but Peterson won’t go there.

The plot has many twists and turns, but no real surprises, revelations, or insights. The main trajectory is, whether she will bed the manny, and the answer to that is clear from the moment she meets him: “I couldn’t help but notice how his worn-out khakis traced the lines of his impossibly hard ass.” This is female wish-fulfillment fiction at its most insidious. The only plot element with a bit of punch and zing is the “whole community of bloggers” that pop up and create a professional complication for Jamie toward the end of the book. Described as living just outside of town, they sound like an evil posse and serve the same function in the plot.

What would happen if Peterson had started at a place where Jamie had a firm handle on what's real and what's illusory? We would be reading fiction that requires more than tons of information about the rich and socially connected (we can read W for that) and some quick laughs. I actually love the topic of The Manny; marrying rich and living on Park Avenue presents a unique set of challenges. Jamie’s lawyer husband pulls down a million and a half a year, yet they are poor by their friends’ standards. How about taking this on for real? Surely, in real life, Holly Peterson has a grip on the nuances that would feed actual social satire, in the tradition of Waugh, Thackeray, or Trollope. That’s a book I’d love to read.

There's just one bright spot: I take solace in the fact that successful popular novels make it financially possible for publishing houses to continue publishing mid-list and literary fiction, albeit not enough of it. So, Holly Peterson, the struggling writers of those genres thank you. And I thought the gold dress you were wearing at the party -- was it Ralph Lauren? -- looked fab on you.

images via Holly's Myspace page