She Who Shops, By Joanne Skerrett, Strapless, an imprint of Kensington Publishing, N.Y., 328 pp., $12.95
Boston's black upper class is a private group, and it's rare that whites get a glimpse into their lifestyles. By introducing Weslee Dunster, former member of the Northwestern University women's basketball team and now an MBA student at Boston University, in her first novel, Joanne Skerrett allows us to see life from a perspective that most of us could never imagine. What is it like to arrive in a new town as an educated, competent, upwardly mobile black woman, and how does that town accept her? And is there a caste system within Boston's black community just as definitive as the one within the old Caucasian Brahmin social milieu?
Weslee gets caught up in a fast-moving crowd courtesy of a spoiled and fashionable classmate, Lana; with Lana's encouragement, she begins to sharpen her image by shopping nonstop, hence the book's title. Our protagonist seems to have a shopping addiction, and she begins to spend all of the money saved from her job in Chicago on clothes. She has, as she calls it, ''a materialism mental overload." She eventually finds herself surrounded by $17,355 worth of new clothes in her Commonwealth Avenue apartment and in need of a part-time job. For a woman who had been an analyst at the top mutual-fund rating firm in the country to have a shopping addiction, however, strikes this reader as unbelievable.
Lana introduces Weslee to her cousin Duncan, and the two begin a whirlwind love affair, providing the reader with a New England travelogue as he wines, dines, and beds her everywhere from the White Mountains of New Hampshire to the Williamstown Inn in the Berkshires. Skerrett (a Boston Globe editor) demonstrates an intimate knowledge of Greater Boston, from Martha's Vineyard to Back Bay, and when Weslee meets a more sincere friend, Sherry Charles, we see a different Boston than Lana's alfresco dining in trendy restaurants, day trips to Nantucket or Block Island, and ferry rides from Rowes Wharf to Provincetown. Sherry's Boston summer, Skerrett writes, meant ''Saturday afternoon family barbeques at Franklin Park with WILD blasting on eight-foot speakers, kids with Puerto Rican, Ghanian, Dominican, and Haitian flags waving from their cars as they sped by on narrow streets, speakers booming the summer's hip-hop anthem."
Through bad love affairs and good men, troubled classmates and true friends, this girly romance novel bogs down when the characters indulge in endless self-therapy and rehashing of who hurt whom and how. While Skerrett dwells too much on whose emotions are doing what and why, she shines in describing physical feelings. After running the Lowell marathon to qualify for the Boston race, she recounts, ''Weslee felt as if she would never walk again. Her lower body felt as if someone had yanked out both her legs and banged them over and over again against a brick wall and then shoved them back into the sockets of her pelvis." We sense that Skerrett, too, may be a runner.