Lives of the rich and fictitious

“He’d had affairs with Bianca Jagger, the princess of Savoia and some runway model turned singer named Annie Lennox,” announces name-dropper Lucia Sanchez, a character in Valerie Ann Leff’s debut novel.

Leff, a local writer, set her Better Homes and Husbands in New York’s Upper East Side, at fictional 980 Park Ave. — a pre-war co-op housing a collection of the wealthy and the famous.

The author, by the way, has paid her dues — in a manner of speaking. She grew up in those lavish confines, too. At her childhood address of 1040 Fifth Ave., Leff could count among her neighbors the Rothschilds and Jackie O.

In fact, when the New York Post wrote about the author’s upcoming readings in the Big Apple, they chose to run a picture of Onassis to further promote the book.

“It’s kind of weird,” Leff says about being lumped with the late icon, an advantage she claims has nothing to do with her novel. “It’s like using a pretty girl to sell cars. The whole idea of the book is so different in New York. Gossip, gossip.”

Of course, gossip is also a big part of Better Homes (St. Martin’s Press, 2004), but the story quickly goes deeper than high-profile parties and summers in the Hamptons.

“A lot of books look at that stratus of society either [in a] resentful [way] or [as] glamorous,” Leff notes. “But that didn’t interest me. I grew up in that, so to me, this is just a book about people. And they’re complex.”

Among the characters is a doorman who makes a name for himself in the fashion world, a baroness who wields her power to ensure justice within the building, and a Latino socialite who longs to save the world.

Leff’s book, begun a decade ago as a collection of short stories, frames each character within the context of his or her own chapter. Arranged chronologically and covering the tumultuous years 1970-2000, each new section allows for another voice to tell of the goings-on at 980 Park Ave.

“I wrestled with whether the book should have a single narrative,” the author reveals. “I felt the book was about peeking into different [people’s] windows — but it was harder to do it that way.”

One such persona is Marley, who makes a few appearances. But it’s not until his own chapter, where he meets the Baroness — another character prone to frequent cameos — that the mixed-race teen is clued in to his origins:

“In addition to the question of race, which we both know was enough to send your grandfather over the edge, there was the class issue,” the Baroness divulges. “We can’t do much more then speculate, but perhaps Charles would have been more accepting had your father been something like the son of the Nigerian ambassador to the UN. But that Charles Payne’s grandson was fathered by his own chauffeur … “

Seven chapters of Leff’s novel were published as short stories in the Antioch Review, Chelsea, the South Carolina Review and other small-circulation literary magazines. When the author decided to combine the stories — housing her collection of characters under one roof, so to speak — she was then faced with the hairy task of mapping out time periods and creating relevant historical contexts.

“I did a lot of math on dates and ages,” she recalls. “Lots of charts on who was president, who was mayor. I’ll never do a structure like that again!”

But despite the complexity of the project, it was a labor of love for Leff. “[The characters] lived for me,” she claims.

Pressed to name a favorite, she chooses Dick Sapphire, a dogged traditionalist struggling to understand the evolving needs of his wife and children.

“He does everything right, and the world keeps changing on him,” Leff laments. “He represents a generation of men I know a lot about. Sort of my parents’ generation — really good guys.”

Near the end of the book, it’s Dick Sapphire, in fact, who takes a good, hard look at himself, his life a microcosm of the changes witnessed by 980 Park Ave.:

“The world was upside down. His wife was a television celebrity, his daughter pushing forty and unmarried. The market was off its high and some said it might fall even more. All the computers were supposed to crash on New Year’s Eve. Al Gore, that stick-in-the-mud, would become the next president. And Dick himself had been responsible for letting a Trojan horse full of orange-robed monks and a deranged, screaming teenager into his building.”

Hey, millionaires have troubles, too.


Author Valerie Leff will read from and discuss Better Homes and Husbands at Malaprop’s Bookstore (55 Haywood St.; 254-6734) at 7 p.m. on Friday, July 2.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts writer and editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs.

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