One fun thing about Steve Martin’s recent novel An Object of Beauty is the chance at voyeurism: He seems to be reporting his own history in romance and sex. He overflows with ardor in routine references to actual spots in Manhattan: dinner at Boulud; the West Side Highway, where women biking turn him on; the Carlyle hotel (that’s a coda through the book: “expensive and impeccable, the Carlyle Hotel was art central” (130)). His excitement over these spots feels a bit like confession.
Martin also seems to reveal some of his true insecurities in the novel, insofar as his two main male characters share parallel, palpable anxieties in dating. These two men—the narrator and a Frenchman—were both born less attractive than the ideal, and less suave, so they feel nervous about winning their women. Their nervousness feels like inside reporting: I can imagine the Martin I’ve seen on T.V. and in some other public places choosing his black rimmed glasses and his crisp white shirts, trying to deliver a style that doesn’t come easily.
So the book sometimes feels like a Manhattan-soaked dating guide: A nerd’s tips on winning the type of “uptown women” (he uses the term often) that Martin’s been able to date. (He has dated real beauties. See Anne Heche here and his current wife Anne Stringfield here.)
You should go read the book if you’re interested in the modern New York art scene—this is a fun tour through the world of art giants like Larry Gagosian and Roman Abramovich—but I can still milk some pulp from the fruit by going to the sex stuff, rattling off the dating tips that rise from the novel like confessions from the famously nerdy-but-sexy comedian.
1. Be Witty. But Don’t Just Banter
“Lacey, do you realize that you’ve never said one thing to me that is not banter?” (136)
The book traces Lacey Yeager as she grows into her sex appeal. She enters the world of art dealing as a woman in her 20’s and quickly learns to exude the confidence and style that mesmerizes clients and other dealers. Multiple men in the book try to win her over and learn lessons from her charisma while they do it.
One is this: Be cheery in conversation, but be careful that you’re not stuck in banter mode. Martin seems to equate the art of conversation with adulthood (“adult” is a word he uses with near obsessional frequency in this book. Who looks adult and why? is his fixation). For Martin, “adulthood” is the ability to feel anxiety but contain it: An adult doubts his own likeability but also knows the world is only beautiful when we perform a bit. Make dinner plans and tell good jokes when you get there. Good conversation is the ability to be witty and only occasionally reference the true and depressive. An adult is a container: Anxiety is modulated; good conversation is kept ambitiously afloat; plans are made for future dinners and trips to foreign places. The confident have seen the abyss but nonetheless move forward.
2. Dress the Part. Eventually You’ll Feel It.
“She looked so beautiful that I thought I didn’t belong with her. But my best behavior makes me look better: I stand up straighter, and I’m more polished, the way I’ve seen other men to be” (243).
If you’re not born cool, you can still project it; you just need to dress the part, and eventually you will play the part. Men around Lacy learn to dress well. Eventually they do it naturally.
Lacey herself largely makes her transition from naive downtown girl to seductive uptown success by daring to buy expensive clothes and invest in big art deals, before even she expects herself able to do it. Ballsy acts promote growth. Wear the clothes and do the behaviors of your parent figures, your ego ideals, and eventually you will quack like your ego ideals. “Her strut appropriately modified, her girlishness tempered and grown up for the richest shopping promenade in Manhattan, Lacey had artfully tailored her downtown vibrancy to an acceptable uptown chic” (188).
3. A Dinner Seals Commitment
This is probably a particularly New York thing, but there’s lots of strategizing about booking powerful dinners in the book. The narrator and the Frenchman value expensive dinners as a way to move a sexual relationship from casual to committed. You’ve got to pick the right dinner venue—one with the power to impress—and make the seduction over food long and somewhat sexless. Dinner is an important modern dating ritual, akin to a bird’s building a nest for its mate.
“Immediate sofa sex would be a short engagement, and he preferred the promise of a long entwinement between the perfumed sheets of the Carlyle’s kind-size bed” (187). The Frenchman has that thought before dinner, as Lacey meets him in his room at the Carlyle. They could have immediate romance, but tonight’s the night for his long seductive dinner. Build the commitment through looking at each other for hours, drinking, having the sort of buoyant conversation alluded to in bulletpoint one above, and postponing the sex. Martin just loves how a dinner at a place that impresses is “[more] major, [more] symbolic” than a dinner with friends somewhere forgettable.
Have you read An Object of Beauty? Did you like it?
Ilana Simons is a therapist, literature professor, and author of A Life of One's Own: A Guide to Better Living through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf. Visit her website here.