Picks and Pans Review: People Like Us

UPDATED 07/11/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 07/11/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

by Dominick Dunne

While you are at the beach this summer reading this novel—and surely you will be at the beach this summer reading this novel—make sure there's someone with you to remind you at appropriate intervals to add more sun block, to turn over on your stomach, and if necessary, to come in out of the rain. People Like Us is that pleasantly difficult to put down. The author of The Two Mrs. Grenvilles and a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, where he chronicles the life-styles of the rich and frequently infamous, Dunne has written a roman that is just enough à clef to push some members of high society off their high horses. Set in Manhattan, the story centers on magazine writer Gus Bailey, who is determined to avenge the murder of his daughter Becky (Dunne's own daughter, actress Dominique Dunne, was strangled by her boyfriend five years ago). It is also the story of nouveau très très riche Elias Renthal and his ravishing, former-stewardess wife, Ruby, who try to storm New York Society as represented by philanthropist Laurance Van Degan and his sister Lil Altemus. Altemus tends to mouth rather than actually utter words like "Jew," "lesbian" and "gay." Then there is arbiter of taste Ezzie Fenwick, who "often used the word 'frightfully' in conversation. 'Frightfully funny,' he'd say about an amusing story. 'Frightfully nice,' he'd say about some people. 'Frightfully grand,' about others. Or 'frightfully common.' He said frightfully common more often than he said frightfully funny or frightfully nice." Dunne clearly knows his territory. His pitch is perfect when writing about Turnbull & Asser custom-made shirts, Meissen plates, Aubusson rugs, Malvern water and silver in the Montmorency pattern. He is no less accurate in chronicling the conversations and petty concerns of the blue-blooded, air-headed ladies who lunch at the exclusive Clarence's. Considering the milieu, it would have been easy to make this a mean-spirited book. But Dunne writes with real humanity and with considerable wit about the people whose lives are played out in the narrow, circumscribed area between Fifth and Park Avenues. Dunne could have used a better ending. He also could have used a better editor. The reader is frequently brought up short by sentences such as "Not a person present, except possibly her mother, did not think that the match, although unusual, was not romantic." Even so, this is a nearly irresistible pop novel. (Crown, $19.95)

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