A mere two novels into her career, New York Times writer Alex Witchel is already treading on Henry James territory as a chronicler of wealthy Manhattan. She isn't the only contender for that position, but she's one of the better ones: The Nanny Diaries and The Devil Wears Prada are too focused on fish-out-of-water outside perspectives; Dana Vachon's Mergers And Acquisitions is too flippant, and The Fortress Of Solitude too Brooklynite. Witchel's second book, The Spare Wife, serves up a skirmish in the firmament of the Upper East Side with all the careful maneuverings of a Jamesian fortune hunter, one of which serves as the book's villain.
As "a middle-aged divorced widow who didn't get nearly as much money as she could have," Ponce Morris has salvaged her single-woman social life by cultivating herself as a couple's best friend, equally versed in sports and shopping. As The Spare Wife opens, the model-turned-lawyer is at a dinner party, quietly greasing the wheels at every turn, from seating the lecherous husband away from his former flame to comforting the soon-to-be-divorced hostess over her custom-built bidet. Unfortunately for Ponce, the one guest she blows off after the party—Babette, an editorial assistant at a Vanity Fair stand-in called Boothby's—spots her sneaking around with Manhattan's best (married) fertility doctor, and decides to report on the affair with or without Ponce's cooperation, to prove she has the chops to write for the magazine.
Witchel's ridiculous device of calling her smug, seemingly unflappable heroine Ponce wears out its welcome after a few chapters (unlike the comic absurdity of an Undine Spragg), but by and large, The Spare Wife plays like lesser Edith Wharton—same obsession with the bona fides of proper society, though much more sex. In its best moments, the novel stares into the steely hearts of its characters and slashes away at their undisguised hauteur. Ponce, her best friend Shawsie, and their friends occasionally lapse into Gossip Girl-worthy histrionics over the ravages of rumor, but Witchel's voice scornfully taps them into place, sometimes using minor characters like the personal trainer who trades in gossip to stir up business. The closer the book inches toward a revenge play, the less that grounding voice is heard, but the finale manages to wind back up into a tight comedy of bad manners.