James Howard Kunstler’s novel is a delightful blend of romance and mystery, part cozy and part commentary—like an offspring of a union between Agatha Christie and Alexander Woollcott. Superficially, the title character in Maggie Darling: A Modern Romance is a New England Martha Stewart type—a socialite and businesswoman (with different Wall Street woes): a “goddess of hearth and home.” Actually, as readers get to know Darling more in-depth, she becomes fairly substantive and sympathetic, balancing catering, book and TV companies on the one hand, and the trials and temptations of newfound freedom on the other.
Bouncing between her family, her lovers, and her employees, from an attorney to a gardener, she eventually sends out roots and shoots like one of the exotic plants over which she fusses. The demanding juggling act is launched when her millionaire investment banker husband Kenneth is nabbed dabbling in adultery, and their son is hooking up with his girl friends and hanging around with “gangsta” types. Maggie’s best friend is rebounding from her own breakup at Maggie’s house, entertaining bad habits ranging from liaisons and drug abuse to theft.
Maggie herself gets involved with a younger rock musician/actor, who betrays her, too, then with an older editor, who also betrays her (in a particularly pathetic passive/aggressive lie), and then with a professional peer, who threatens to kill himself.
Breathlessly, the plot shows her husband losing it in a series of stunning twists, a friend dying in Central Park, a sniper terrorizing a Connecticut freeway, and armed robbers pulling off lunchtime heists.
Besides being a novelist, Kunstler is a social critic whose work includes amusing and incisive comments on suburbia and other questions of place and space, on social norms that are as endangered as the world’s finite oil supplies, and on the culture’s collective economic priorities and its individuals’ behavioral patterns. Add food, fashion, and style, and the results are a delicious, spicy take on modernity through the experience of an interesting woman.
From its intriguing opening to its hilarious epilogue, the book is a comedy of manners. Characters make it a compelling critique of declining society. Details—names (Reggie Chang, Trice & Wanker) and menus, celebrity guests and trendy clothes—enrich the whole. It’s funny escapism and also interesting observation: How did modern civilization reach this point?