Trophy House, By Anne Bernays, Simon & Schuster, 258 pp., $24
Dannie Faber has it all -- successful career, solid marriage, loving children, upscale homes, devoted friends, a likable dog. But as the 50-something children's book illustrator soon discovers, change can come quickly.
In this novel of accommodation, of trying to find purpose and direction when life and love do not work out as planned, Anne Bernays has sought to tell a familiar story in an unusual way. She relies on the metaphor of a trophy house, one of those garish monuments to conspicuous consumption cropping up on pastoral landscapes all across the country.
Dannie and her husband, Tom, an anthropology professor at MIT, own a house on Cape Cod and another in Watertown, neither trophy. They divorce after Tom has an affair with Judith, a Knight Science Journalism fellow at MIT, and Dannie has one with David, her divorced book editor, ultimately living with him briefly in Manhattan.
Unsettled when she discovers David is needy and accident prone, Dannie returns to the Cape, where her Truro house is near a trophy house she despises. But Mitch, the crass hotel magnate who owns it, and Raymie, his new lover and Dannie's friend, want her to decorate and publicize part of it as a bed-and-breakfast.
Dannie's uneasy decision to accept the project reflects a choice of friendship over principle, the latter championed by her daughter, Beth. She is a former accessories and makeup editor at a New York teen magazine who has recently split up with her boyfriend. Like her mother, she is on her own impulsive journey of personal discovery, which includes working at a New Hampshire halfway house for troubled teenagers.
Dannie learns to live with her ambivalence over the project, reflecting how she comes to terms with David, opting for a long-distance romance over moving in. She also tempers her expectations of others, herself, and life, as does Beth, who settles on the Cape to plan weddings for gay and lesbian couples. ''I guess I'm like one of those Henry James characters, where happiness is just around the next corner," Dannie tells David.
The story takes place shortly after the 9/11 attacks, an event Dannie and others repeatedly mention to suggest the chaos beneath complacency in life, and one of the novel's many disappointing aspects. More could have been done with it. Instead, the casual, almost ancillary infusion of 9/11 comes off as a gratuitous attempt at depth in what remains relentlessly shallow writing.
Cosmetic characters and a banal, spasmodic plot produce such implausibly quick shifts as Raymie falling for Mitch, and David for Dannie. Thematically extraneous threads abound, from Dannie's dinner choices to potshots at Republicans to an anti-Semitic ecoterrorist attack on Mitch's house. The last could have been intriguing had it been artfully developed. But like the trophy house metaphor itself, it was not.
A chatty tone, gimmicky transitions (''I held on to the counter and said, 'What next?' "), and a reliance on the real instead of imagined (MIT actually has Knight Science Journalism fellows) result in ''Trophy House" reading the way a trophy house looks. It is the showy, vacuous façade of a novel rather than a novel.