I was a big fan of Sloane Crosley's pert personal essay collections, How Did You Get This Number and I Was Told There'd Be Cake, so I was primed to love her first novel. Billed as "part comedy of manners, part madcap treasure hunt," with a debt to Guy de Maupassant's "The Necklace," I was looking forward to a smart, sassy romp of a book. But while The Clasp delivers plenty of snappy lines, it unfortunately hinges on three rather uninteresting old college friends whose litany of disappointments alternate in 50 short chapters.
The trio, no longer as close as in their relatively carefree campus days, meet up eight years after graduation at a wealthy classmate's posh destination wedding. At 30, the bloom is off the rose of both grownup life and their careers; in fact, even the flower of their friendship is distinctly wilted.
Victor, a glum fellow who's often mistaken for "the sharp-faced actor," Adrien Brody, doesn't tell his friends that he has recently been fired from his job at an Internet search engine company. Kezia is the longtime object of Victor's unrequited affections who tries, not altogether successfully, to make up for her lack of romantic interest by being a caring friend. She regrets having restlessly jumped ship from a prominent jeweler to become second in command (and first in the line of fire) to an impossibly bitchy, high-strung jewelry designer. (Crosley obviously relishes writing about bosses-from-hell, a subject she previously nailed in her much funnier essay, "The Ursula Cookie.") Nathaniel, Kezia's longtime unreciprocated crush, has traded his literary dreams to become a TV writer in LA – which he discovers isn't as easy as he thought. Afflicted with "an abnormally small heart" — literally! — his major involvement is with himself.
Like the faulty clasps on one of Kezia's boss's latest overpriced designs, the pieces of Crosley's plot require obvious effort to snap into place. Victor is galvanized when he passes out on the bed of the recently widowed mother of the groom, Johanna — and she awakens him with a peek at her jewelry stash and the tantalizing story of a missing sapphire necklace hidden away in a Normandy chateau requisitioned by the Nazis during World War II, information she's apparently never shared with her family.
Several links in the book's narrative chain are so clanky they weigh heavily on our willing suspension of disbelief. On the one hand, things happen incredibly fast – Johanna dies the day after the wedding, and her furniture is sold off and shipped abroad within weeks – while on the other, with the drag of tedious flashbacks to college and dissolute Los Angeles parties, it takes hundreds of pages to get everyone to France, where we knew they were headed from the get-go.
Multiple references to Guy de Maupassant's best-known story and to his sex-crazed, syphilis-ridden life add a bit of glittering diversion from the trio's lackluster preoccupations. "The Necklace," a sad lesson in irony about a woman whose craving for a richer life leads to dismaying consequences, evokes wildly divergent reactions, which Crosley plays to smart effect. (My favorite: "It's not upsetting that the necklace is fake but that she is real.")
And true to form, Crosley tosses off plenty of sharp zingers. "The world was not subtle about telling single people what they were missing," she comments when Kezia has dinner with a married friend whose husband not only cooks the meal but churns ice cream for dessert. Kezia refrains from informing her friend that "asking a single woman if she wants kids is like asking a one-armed man if he'd like to play tennis." When another guest at their classmate's luxe wedding chides suit-clad Victor that "Every self-respecting young man should have a tux," he replies, "Well ... that explains why I don't have one."
But The Clasp is also filled with a casual misanthropy frequently aimed at so-called friends, which can leave a decidedly different taste from the self-deprecating wit of Crosley's essays: Flat-out deprecation plays more like snark. Eventually, Crosley's narrative shifts from sarcastic lark to the more serious matter of what it means to be clasped in the embrace of heartfelt, abiding friendship, but this is a book that doesn't sparkle quite as dazzlingly as we'd hoped.