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.
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.