The Fame Lunch­es: On Wound­ed Icons, Mon­ey, Sex, the Bron­tës, and the Impor­tance of Handbags

  • Review
By – February 26, 2015

With her keen eye and razor-sharp pen, Daphne Merkin is a superb crafter of lan­guage and observ­er of human fail­ings, hopes, and pain. She grabs the essay form by its horns and, true to its root mean­ing to try, to weigh,” wields it to puz­zle out sub­jects from divorce, Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe, why hand­bags mat­ter and gir­dles don’t to advanced den­tistry, sleep­ing alone, and oth­er con­tem­po­rary cul­tur­al concerns.

The essays are grouped under six head­ings: Star­dust and Ash­es — vul­ner­a­ble celebri­ties; Skin-Deep — appear­ance, includ­ing Merkin’s own; Out of Print — book reviews; High­er Val­ues — mon­ey and its ram­i­fi­ca­tions; Women in the Sin­gu­lar; and The Mat­ing Game. But what­ev­er the sub­ject, woven into each essay is Merkin’s sen­si­bil­i­ty, an acute sen­si­tiv­i­ty to human fal­li­bil­i­ty and disappointment.

The Yom Kip­pur Pedi­cure” and Mar­ket­ing Mys­ti­cism” are thought-pro­vok­ing essays that untan­gle Merkin’s con­flict­ed rela­tion­ship with Judaism, an out­growth of her upbring­ing in a promi­nent Mod­ern Ortho­dox home, where she saw Judaism as a pre­scribed set of social behav­iors, not a sys­tem of beliefs. Our Mon­ey, Our­selves” puts an inter­est­ing twist on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s obser­va­tion that the rich are dif­fer­ent; and in the title essay Merkin opens her­self to both Woody Allen and the read­er. Inter­views with Diane Keaton, Nuala O’Faolain, Alice Munro, among oth­ers, invite the read­er to get to know the sub­ject as Merkin her­self has.

I write, in what­ev­er guise, large­ly out of emo­tion­al neces­si­ty,” says Merkin in her Intro­duc­tion, and emo­tion­al need, a notably fem­i­nine one, runs through most of these essays. For some read­ers there are essays that may be too gra­tu­itous­ly inti­mate to read. But Merkin, a for­mer writer for the New York­er and a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to the New York Times, Elle, and oth­er lead­ing pub­li­ca­tions, brings wit and unflinch­ing intel­li­gence to her sub­jects. Read these essays selec­tive­ly, choos­ing among them as from a box of rich con­fec­tions, and enjoy each on its own terms.

Relat­ed content:

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions