Gigi Levangie would be the perfect name—so mellifluous, such harkening to Collette’s courtesan—for a heroine in a Gigi Levangie Grazer novel. You pick up a novel by Gigi Levangie Grazer precisely because she added that final surname when she married hugely successful movie producer Brian Grazer. The point of one of her Hollywood sagas, or at least the marketing of it, is the conflation of the creator and her characters. When she writes of their obsessive grooming, self-display, random sex—think of bonobos with mansions and Maseratis—she is welcoming you into her world.
As her characters find out in book after book, it’s a cruel place for women. At least for women who define themselves by their looks and the man they are able to nab, which is the central drama of a GLG novel. But even when she was overseeing with her husband the building and decorating of homes whose cumulative square footage rivaled that of a sporting arena, Grazer cultivated the persona of a woman apart: a tart social observer who neglected her duties as keeper of his social calendar, who couldn’t resist a cutting remark about herself and everyone else. Not long after the publication of The Starter Wife, about a smart, sassy woman abandoned by her jerk of a Hollywood-producer husband, Gigi was dumped by Brian. So it must have been delicious for her to type the opening words to her latest novel, The After Wife: “Hi, my name is Hannah … and I’m a widow.”
This seems like the juicy setup for a real revenge novel. How much fun it would be to off a fictional husband who’d, say, sported an electrified updo and was extravagantly neurotic. Maybe she would have him die of anaphylactic shock after applying a new brand of hair gel.
But Grazer instead delivers, disappointingly, the most unlikely of Hollywood fantasies: The dead husband was the perfect man. John Bernal was a chef, a sensual monogamist who liked nothing better than feeding his wife because he adored her body so much he thought there should be more of it. He was a successful cookbook author cum stay-at-home father to their precocious toddler. He had an adorable little roll of belly fat and a chest full of hair. That last trait is particularly wondrous in L.A., which is, as Hannah observes, “a magical place where the men have less body hair than the women.” (I will acknowledge this sent me to Google images where I found this photo of Brian Grazer’s fat-free physique, his chest as hairless as a Xoloitzcuintli.)
One Saturday morning John wakes up Hannah, makes fabulous love to her, takes off for the farmers’ market, and gets killed by a hit-and-run driver. Sure, this is a wrenching setup. But if you are planning to take this book to the beach, beware it might get your towel soggy; for almost 300 pages Hannah bawls, blubbers, wails, and weeps. A reader loses sympathy when the distraught widow describes her late husband’s service: “With as much dignity and balance as I could muster on Louboutin stilettos (a funeral gift from Uncle Jay) I made the most glamorous entrance of my life, as though this were the movie version of ‘My Husband’s Funeral’ starring Hannah Marsh Bernal.”
Slate’s Mark O’Connell recently wrote a piece praising artists who obsessively return to a theme, like Samuel Beckett writing about the same “insistent and bewildered” characters. Gigi Levangie Grazer is the Beckett of Botox, the Rabelais of Restalyn, the Rimbaud of rhinoplasty. The problem is that while she can give a follicle-by-follicle, pore-by-pore accounting of her heroine’s surface, it’s hard to find the blood and guts inside. A Grazer novel generally features, in addition to that Grazerian heroine—lovably flawed and sharp-tongued—a cadre of ditzy-yet-stalwart gal pals and a flamboyant gay best friend. I understand the purpose of Grazer’s oeuvre is diversion, not depth. But couldn’t the characters be recognizably human and not just a checklist of stereotypes (vegan, faux-Buddhist health nut; pushy, pneumatic bleach-blonde)?
I want a novel like this to be a lemon soufflé, an airy indulgence with a bracingly tart edge. But The After Wife is more like a bowl of cornstarch pudding. Winston Churchill once pushed away a dessert by saying, “This pudding lacks a theme.” Grazer’s pudding has a theme: Is a grieving widow in her early 40s too old by L.A. standards to ever find a sex partner again? (Spoiler: Not when the heroine so resembles the much-written-about Gigi Levangie Grazer.) What her book lacks is a plot.
There’s the opportunity for one. While Hannah struggles with the downside of grief (crying makes her face looks puffy and old) and the upside (she goes down a dress size because she can’t eat), she discovers that her loss has given her the ability to speak to the dead. First she hears from the elderly widow who previously occupied her home. Then it is John himself, floating near their avocado tree, not quite ready to give up the ghost. Premise established, Grazer then delivers a series of set pieces, many involving bodily manipulations: the high colonic, the vaginal steam, the tattoo parlor.
She nods at a story, but for much of the book seems to lose interest in it, in favor of more descriptions of crying and exfoliating. It turns out the cops have screwed up their investigation of the hit-and-run that killed John. From the beyond, John tells Hannah they’ve got the wrong man, an illegal alien who came upon the scene and comforted John, and who then fled when the cops arrived. John says a driver in a Land Rover was the actual assailant. This seems like a recipe for some desperately needed tension: a widow, aided by her dead husband, trying to convince the police they’ve got it wrong. Then I remembered that’s basically the plot of Ghost, so maybe Grazer didn’t want to appear to be cribbing.
I don’t object to these travels into the supernatural—in the world of Gigi Levangie Grazer, the natural is not highly valued. But Ghost, The Sixth Sense, and other entertainments based on visits from the dead require that the writer create a world in which the implausible is believable. It’s a lot easier to accept that Hannah can reliably call forth the departed and convey messages from them to their living loved ones than that Hannah, a reality-show producer now in dire financial straits, wouldn’t immediately recognize this skill was more marketable than a Silicon Valley IPO. I kept wanting to scream at Hannah that she should star in her own television series—call it Talking Deads and set that precocious toddler up for life.
Grazer is clever and gets off some good lines. Hannah acknowledges she can be a little hard to take and says, “The men who found me attractive tended to be deaf in one ear.” Later she notes a woman across the bar with “lips for miles,” thanks to having her plastic surgeon on speed dial. “Age is just a state of blind in L.A.” I started thinking Grazer’s métier could be doing television commentary on the entertainment industry—she’d have a zinger about every cosmetic procedure, every sexual peccadillo.
Grazer, who’s in her 40s, hints at the terror behind the obsessively maintained surfaces. If you look at her photograph on her website—with her brow as smooth as a skating rink, her perfectly tousled espresso-colored hair, her dress that’s an overgrown bustier—you get the sense she knows it well. Take Hannah’s friend, Aimee, an actress as beautiful as Angelina Jolie who has spent her whole life, Miss Havisham-like, waiting for the role that will transform her from the woman in the shampoo commercial into a star. But now she’s in her 40s, and she spends her dwindling money on ever more destructive methods of trying to stay young. Los Angeles is filled with such object lessons. Grazer uses her as a comic foil, her face constantly healing from some procedure. But she missed an opportunity to flesh out a character whose break never came.
It’s too bad Grazer has made the search for romance her singular obsession as a writer. I know Hollywood’s business is fantasy, but Grazer’s happy-ending fairy tales are much less interesting than the real Hollywood she must know so well. The Hollywood where obsessive ambition, ego, and insecurity tectonically crash. Certainly Grazer has seen up close that every successful person there worries that the magic will disappear, that the audience will fall in love with someone else. Instead of showing us how desperate single women are, and how entitled that makes single men, she could have taken us inside the sometimes dirty business of creating reality shows. (She knows the territory, having appeared on some herself.)
Instead, Grazer has Hannah view her producing career as a slightly shameful way to make a living. But Gigi Levangie Grazer isn’t embarrassed about writing lightweight chick lit. No one in Hollywood, after all, is embarrassed by success.
The After Wife by Gigi Levangie Grazer. Ballantine Books.