Part book review, part impressionistic scribblings on the joys of reading and the struggles of carving out time in which to do it,
#ABookishYear is a weekly dispatch from the front lines of an intellectual journey spanning fifty-two tomes.
Justice for Judith
By Roxanne Fequiere
As a sophomore in high school, longing for some money of my own and the sense of independence that comes with it, I accepted a job as a library page. My initial responsibilities included shelving book returns, sifting through donations, and shelf reading, or straightening out, the adult fiction section, all of which lent me an odd, mostly unearned familiarity with hundreds of titles and authors that I’d never actually read based on titles and cover art alone. With titles like Cat’s Eye and The Handmaid’s Tale, I assumed that Margaret Atwood was a particularly prolific historical fiction writer. I couldn’t quite guess what Zadie Smith’s books were about, but they appeared somehow steeped in gravitas, as if they’d remain beyond my grasp for several years yet.
Then there were the big-name authors. You know the type: your Danielle Steels, John Grishams, Michael Crichtons, your Clive Cusslers and Stephen Kings, Jackie Collins, Judith Krantz. I thought of them as big names both because of the volume of their work—most authors had a few titles, and these guys had entire shelves—and the sheer size of their own names, splashed across every cover in bold colors and bolder fonts. Every title telegraphed thrills, whether salacious or swashbuckling, and based on how often they came in and out of the library, it seemed like people couldn’t get enough of them.
Though all of these author’s works span several decades, there’s something about those books’ artwork that evokes a sense of mid-eighties excess. For my first foray beyond the cover of one of those stories, I wanted a plot that would capture that quality and run with it. I’m pleased to report that I found exactly that in Judith Krantz’s 1986 novel I’ll Take Manhattan.
The first thing you need to know about Maxi Amberville, the 29-year-old daughter of late publishing magnate Zachary Amberville, is that she’s stunningly beautiful. Gorgeous. Ravishing. Inexplicably smoking hot. Men are her playthings. If you somehow manage to forget this fact, you’ll be reminded of it every few pages or so. The second thing you need to know is that she’s impulsive and used to getting her way, so when she arrives home to find out that the uncle she despises is gutting her father’s empire, she’s ready to do anything to stop him.
Maxi’s character and mission is laid out within the first two chapters, but then, instead of moving forward, Krantz takes a detour, diving into the past in order to establish the Ambervilles’ family history: Maxi’s grandparents, her father’s first forays into the publishing business, her mother’s passion for ballet.
There are more than a dozen characters to keep track of as the story unfolds, at which point I began to develop a genuine appreciation for Krantz’s talent as a novelist. Every single one of her characters had a fleshed-out backstory, concrete ambitions, and a distinct personality. Krantz’s ability to juggle all of them over the course of four hundred-plus pages while intertwining their stories and keeping the drama factor permanently turned up to ten is truly impressive. Imagine accomplishing that feat on a regular basis and having your books classified as “trashy.” I’d have a fit.
A 1986 profile of Judith Krantz revealed that she “refuses to read critical reviews and looks wounded at the mere mention of the word ‘trash.’”
"Trash to me is garbage,” she said. “In my books, there is no garbage. I turn out, with great difficulty—believe me, it just doesn't happen—something that millions of people want to read in nineteen languages. Trash it is definitely not." She described her work as “High Entertainment,”and she’s certainly mastered that craft. According to the Jewish Women’s Archive, Krantz is the the third bestselling female novelist in history.
There’s obviously a conversation to be had here about art and commerce and who’s allowed to dabble in the latter without forfeiting any claim to the former. There’s something to be said about the depiction of female desire and why it’s painted into a pink corner of the literature world.
And yet, to get bogged down in those discussions on account of this whiz-bang sparkler of a novel, one that lovingly describes each and every one of Maxi’s outfits in such detail that it made me want to go gallivanting through a great vintage store; that revels in every last Manhattan cliché and yet doesn’t feel stale; that features a Donald Trump cameo and still manages to sail along with only a hint of a bad aftertaste, would be to do a disservice to the uninhibited exuberance of the book itself, so just grab a copy and dig in. I dare you not to smile.
Roxanne Fequiere is a New York–based writer and editor who might just make it after all.