Beginning in fifth grade, Phoebe Fine, the daughter of an oboist in suburban New Jersey, finds that love is a risky game to play. There is Roger Mancuso, who offers Phoebe her first cigarette, her first kiss, and her first experience of loss. There is Spitty Clark, the frat boy and inveterate party animal who's a possible criminal but also somehow a man of honor. Later on, as a young woman living in New York, Phoebe crosses the path of arrogant Pablo Miles (né Peter Mandelbaum), who licks her hand moments after they meet. And so it goes, as Phoebe struggles to reconcile her conflicting desires for safety and adventure, sympathy and conquest. Lucinda Rosenfeld relates Phoebe's serial, seriocomic encounters with freshness, range, economy, and emotional precision:
"She understood the jealousy emaciation aroused in other women."
"She couldn't persuade herself to spend an entire hour's salary on a piece of bread and three zucchini rounds."
"Their first date was more like an appointment. To screw."
Unexpected, absorbing, and likely to elicit strong identification among men and women alike, What She Saw . . . serves up acute observations and serious ideas--Phoebe's recognition of her complicity in the disenchantments she endures, the intersection of Eros and ambition--with stealthy charm. The sum of these parts is an intriguing, funny, sharp, and occasionally devastating rendition of that most basic and crucial of human stories: growing up. The vision in What She Saw . . . is perfect.
Sometimes in a moment of limbo or confusion, it's advisable to make a list. An inventory of accomplishments, a chart of pros and cons. Lucinda Rosenfeld's first novel takes as its form a list of past boyfriends. Each section finishes the sentence begun in its title, What She Saw...
in "Roger Mancuso, or 'The Stink Bomb King of Fifth Grade.'" Later, in college, it's "Humphrey Fung, or 'The Anarchist Feminist.'" The book's shape and humor come from the gathering logic of this catalog, how our heroine is repeatedly fooled by the illusions of lust, always looking for something new, someone who can eclipse the failed romances of the past.
Rosenfeld's protagonist, Phoebe Fine, is a sharp-tongued brainiac with rotten self-esteem. Born and raised in suburban New Jersey, she's the daughter of professional classical musicians, hippie theater types who embarrass their kids; they are always going into geeky raptures on the subject of chamber music or obscure lost arts. Phoebe wishes she could be considered "normal." She wishes she had blond hair and perfect teeth, but instead she's painfully ordinary: in the chapter "Jason Barry Gold, or 'The Varsity Lacrosse Stud'" Rosenfeld riffs expertly on the subject of Phoebe's ordinariness:
That's how ugly she was--ugly by virtue of the fact that she was unmemorable, a slab of alabaster awaiting a sculptor who never arrived, a "nothing burger" if there ever was one. Take her nose: it just kind of ended, and her forehead just kind of began--kind of like the weeks in a year and the years in a life. It was the same with her waist and her hips, and her neck and her shoulders. There was nothing definitive about her. She was just this filet of human flesh--just this blah girl running laps behind the gym until she thought her legs would snap, her heart explode.
The search for true love keeps Phoebe in a state of high anxiety. It's a wonder she ever gets any sleep. When the right guy gives her the right kind of attention, she's queen for a day. Alone, without the prospect of a lover, she starves herself, drinks too much, occasionally stares into the mystery of her past. What did she see in those men? What did they see in her? At once erotic and awkward, lightweight and troubling, Rosenfeld's debut possesses a powerful charm. Readers who grew up in the '70s and '80s will recognize the landmarks: Farah Fawcett posters, boring social studies classes explaining glasnost. Rosenfeld's a former New York Post
nightlife columnist, and What She Saw...
has the quick pace, twittering freshness, and panicked hipness of a club-hopper. Deadpan and stylish, it's a novel whose author is out to prove herself. And prove herself she does, in spades. --Emily White