Every parent wants the best for her children, up to and including which college they attend. But as notorious true-life events have shown (see the Operation Varsity Blues scandal, which sent actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman to jail), a certain sector of high-income parents are all too willing to cross lines in order to smooth the way for their offspring to enroll at ivy-festooned blue chip universities.
With its sharp eye on the social mores of elite cheaters, Lauren Weisberger's new novel, "Where the Grass Is Green and the Girls Are Pretty" (Random House, 368 pp., ★★★ out of four), goes down like an ice-cold guilty pleasure on a hot beach-reading day.
Weisberger, known for bestseller "The Devil Wears Prada," takes us into the lives of one family caught up in a PR nightmare thanks to one "big misunderstanding." Peyton Marcus, anchor at a national TV news show, has the requisite wealthy Manhattan accoutrements: prime uptown address, private gym, regular Botox and the priciest – though by no means best – private school for daughter Max, a senior who'd much rather go to film school than her father Isaac's alma mater, Princeton.
When one tiny lie – that is, a not-so-tiny donation – begins to unravel the Marcus family's carefully curated life, Peyton wails about what she sees as the hypocrisy of their entire social set: "We hired a private field hockey coach in third grade. Remember the professor from Columbia with a PhD in applied mathematics to tutor her in algebra? Or the nearly twenty grand we paid last summer so she could 'volunteer' to build homes for needy families in Costa Rica?" Amid the arms race of competitive parental striving, Peyton wants to know, "How is this different?"
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Moral parsing aside, what the novel asks us to do, under the candy coating of brand-name details, is to empathize with both those who are complicit in this particular variety of rigged-for-the-rich, and those who suffer from it. Sort of. Because it's hard to argue that Max, while humiliated by her parents' choices, is going to be deeply affected. Weisberger stays firmly with characters of the 1%: although Skye, Peyton's do-gooder sister, works to provide housing and education for a group of underprivileged girls, we never meet these characters or learn their stories.
Instead, when Peyton flees to Skye's New York-adjacent "village," Paradise (hence the title and the Guns N' Roses song readers will likely suffer as an earworm), we meet the suburban version of the rich white strivers. Weisberger deftly limns Westchester's class codes, catching what's under a charming small town facade: "an entirely different world, one where the lady who worked the register at the stationery store wore a fifty-thousand-dollar diamond ring, and the cobbler's work table was stacked with Gucci luggage and Louboutin pumps." Some sloppy cliches intrude, however – hearts pound, noses wrinkle, fingernails dig into palms – which detract from the story.
Overall, however, Weisberger’s enjoyable newest is a tart complement to this season’s overhyped college commotion.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lauren Weisberger's 'Where the Grass Is Green' a guilty pleasure