Nora Zelevansky Semi-Charmed Life: A Novel

ISBN 13: 9781250001184

Semi-Charmed Life: A Novel

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9781250001184: Semi-Charmed Life: A Novel
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In Nora Zelevansky's hilarious debut, Semi-Charmed Life, an Upper West Side naïf, Beatrice Bernstein, gets swept up in the seemingly magical life of famous-for-nothing twenty-something, Veruca Pfeffernoose, while ghost writing her blog. Veruca's glitteringly opulent world soon seduces Beatrice away from her own insular, arty family with a promise of fancy parties, travel outside Manhattan (for once) and one desperately cute guy. But when her new glitzy lifestyle starts to take on dark undertones, Beatrice has to decide who she is―once and for all. With her own magical touch, Zelevansky deftly explores the world of rarified Manhattan in this sparkling modern fairy tale of first love, finding one's voice and growing up.

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About the Author:

NORA ZELEVANSKY's writing has appeared in ELLE, SELF, InStyle, Town & Country, Style.com, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, Salon.com, Vanity Fair online and Travel + Leisure, among others. A born-and-bred Manhattanite, she now lives with her husband in Brooklyn, New York.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1
 
 
LITTLE DID NAÏVE BEATRICE BERNSTEIN KNOW—as she hacked and sniffled privately at her parents’ rent-controlled Upper West Side apartment—that her bothersome cold was New York’s “must-have” ailment of the season.
Everyone who was anyone caught the bronchial cough that just wouldn’t heal and thoroughly enjoyed whining about it in cultivated Kathleen Turner voices at the chicest upscale dives. “Do I sound sexy?” was an oft-repeated phrase from Soho House to Pastis and, though the question was generally followed by a cough or sneeze, the answer was almost always affirmative. For just an instant, postnasal drip was the new black, and lymph nodes and swollen glands jutted out proudly like so many anorexic models’ rib cages.
Meanwhile, Beatrice lamented her “bout of consumption” from a perch upon her childhood bedroom’s antique radiator and interior window ledge. Five days into her illness, she was still sick and officially missing her first week of senior year in college. Her overprotective parents—who would never take no for an answer unless it was barked over lentil soup by Midtown’s infamous Soup Nazi—embargoed her plans to make the thirty-five-block trek uptown to her waiting off-campus apartment. And they remained resolute even after she promised to mummify herself in itchy alpaca wool. At twenty-one years old, Beatrice still rarely won a battle against her mother and father. In this instance, she was too congested to try.
Instead, she choked back boredom like so much phlegm, opening the window wide and gazing twelve stories down with stir-crazy longing. As a child, Beatrice spent many restless evenings in this same spot, as shrill laughter echoed in fits and starts from her parents’ dinner parties. Tracing the radiator’s geometric grate with her fingers, she would pretend the cool winter breeze was arctic and the honking car horns were fellow explorers’ boats.
Now, in one hand she clutched a small Moleskine notebook, in the other a salty licorice cough drop from a stash on a midcentury moderne Lucite bedside table her parents had picked out. To their chagrin, over the years she had covered the stark collectible with stickers, from childish Smurf puffies to Andre the Giant “Obey.” The walls around her—once littered with pictures of her high school friends in Sheep Meadow, Justin Timberlake and Strokes posters, Degas prints and her own Magic Marker drawings—were pockmarked from thumbtacks past.
Beatrice popped the lozenge in her mouth and shuddered, lamenting her parents’ love of all things unusual. Gary and Madeline Bernstein were forever infatuated with esoteric food, music, and design from revolving cultures based on whatever contemporary art show Madeline was curating at “the Museum.”
During a Brazilian projects exhibition, Havaiana flip-flops and feijoada brunches were all the rage in their household. The apartment smelled of smoky sausage and black beans. But then—with the introduction of an Asian group show—Korean spicy tofu stew stole the focus. Kimchi, mixed with pungent Chinese oolong tea, was the prevailing scent, and Japanese neo-punk blared from the stereo.
Currently, Beatrice’s mother was in discussions with a young photographer from Holland. His new series featuring aging red-light-district prostitutes in homey settings with their adorable pets—“a strong juxtaposition,” everyone said—had created quite a stir in Amsterdam. Thus, Beatrice was stuck with her father’s new favorite salty licorice cough drops from the Netherlands, as if black licorice wasn’t bitter enough. Beatrice gagged as the putrid flavor spread across the back of her tongue.
She leaned against the window frame, whimpering martyred last words in the vein of Beth March from Little Women. “Be brave, dear family. I’m not afraid to die.” Wait—did she say that out loud?
“I hardly think you’re going to die,” mocked her father, marching into the bedroom in his uniform Levi’s and black T-shirt and setting her lunch down on a folding bedside table. “Unless you fall out the window. For the umpteenth time, please do not stick your head out that way. It’s bad enough when the cat does it.”
Beatrice rolled her eyes so wide that a witness—had there been one—might have sworn he heard a comical boing! as her irises popped back into place.
“A healthy dose of Daddy’s Soup Surprise should do you wonders.”
Gary could not cook. The one food in his arsenal was a “consommé” concocted from Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup and hot sauce. His ownership over said recipe seemed tenuous at best, but he had always believed that, as life was art and art was life, what pervaded the zeitgeist was pretty much fair game. Whenever Beatrice poked fun, suggesting that heating something on a burner and adding Tabasco Sauce hardly seemed worthy of copyright, her father replied, “Tell it to Andy Warhol.”
At present, she wasn’t telling anything to anyone. Treating Beatrice like a child was part of a deep-rooted family dynamic that no one dared upset, least of all her. And staying put was the norm: Though the Bernsteins analyzed groundbreaking cultural phenomena from around the globe, they were the worst kind of provincial New Yorkers, believing that venturing outside the immediate vicinity was a waste of time.
Thus, Beatrice’s parents’ world—though immaculate and well designed (never a comfortable couch did abound)—was insular, revolving mostly around the not-so-mean streets of the Upper West Side and around friends and family who understood and cared about contemporary art. And that is a very small demographic.
As preschoolers at gallery openings, Beatrice and her older sister, Gertie, navigated a sea of black-clad legs, above which hovered asymmetrical earrings and angular haircuts. Pictures of frequent Bernstein home dinner guests in compromising naked positions with words like “Walk” or “String” painted across their foreheads lined the walls beside monochromatic paintings (all black, all blue, all white). Beatrice learned at an early age that staying within the confines of said world was tricky. There were many rules to being unorthodox, one of which involved almost never setting foot outside New York City.
“Why should we, when we have everything we could want around the corner?” Her parents would shrug.
Beatrice’s mother, Madeline, first made a name for herself as an expert in American abstract expressionism from Jackson Pollock splatter paintings to Mark Rothko’s color block works, so she rarely needed to travel. By the time she developed an interest in more contemporary artists from other countries, she was so established within the field that—most of the time—she could send enthusiastic underlings in her place, while she perused catalog images and JPEGs from behind her gigantic desk. The internationally renowned curator’s resistance to leaving New York was written off by the art world as a fascinating philosophical idiosyncrasy shared by her quirky artist husband. Besides, the Big Apple is the center of the universe, art fans insisted.
But Beatrice couldn’t leave well enough alone. “Aren’t you curious? Don’t you imagine luxuriating in art nouveau chairs at Parisian cafés, while sipping hot café au lait, or buying organic carrots at outdoor markets in Aix-en-Provence?” she would suggest to her father. Her mother had tired of the debate long ago.
“Have you tasted the espresso from Fairway, around the corner?” replied Gary. “How could the cafés in France offer anything better?” Thus began an inevitable tirade about French anti-Semitism.
“But wouldn’t you like to be temporarily blinded by Tokyo’s fluorescent lights, while sorting through T-shirts with nonsensical English slogans like ‘Eat Your Toe’? Imagine waking up in autumn in Kyoto inside a traditional ryokan hotel, back stiff from sleeping on a tatami!”
“Have you wandered Central Park in fall? Tasted the cucumber martini at Nobu? Let Hasaki’s beef negimaki melt in your mouth, knowing you’d drink the sauce if no one was looking? Perused T-shirts and comic book stores on St. Mark’s? Why leave?”
“What about cultures you’ve already learned to love from afar? Don’t you want to sip fresh watermelon caipirinhas under the watchful eye of Sugarloaf in Brazil? Wonder at your own ability to loll on the beaches of Ipanema while City of God gang wars between eight-year-old children are playing out in the favelas above?”
“I hate the beach.” Her father would smile.
Beatrice’s sister Gertie (named for Gertrude Stein, of course) had wholeheartedly adopted her parents’ philosophy. She rarely emerged from her small apartment down the hall, where she’d been examining the minute details of Marcel Proust’s life’s work for the past few eons thanks to the world’s largest literary grant. Her readings, also held in-house, had become a sort of elite salon for posturing academics, who would later brag to friends and professional nemeses alike around the proverbial watercooler—which in this case was generally an instant hazelnut coffee machine—about the rare intimate experience with the doyenne of Proust studies.
Gertie also edited a lauded poetry journal called In the Dark Room, which she started at age eight in third grade, after famously penning a poem during the verbal section of a standardized test:
In the dark room,
Where humans don’t sleep
Doll children are searching for something to eat
Clown on a box,
Ti...

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