Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A Collection of Beauties at the Height of their Popularity, by Whitney Otto. Random House, 2002

I found this an odd book. Not just the format- vignettes loosely bound together, styled after a Japanese courtesan’s ‘pillow book’ from the Edo period , each vignette featuring a different member of a group of friends. Set in 1980s San Francisco, these friends are late 20 somethings, all well educated but none working in the field that they are educated for. They float through life; drinking, smoking pot and sometimes doing coke, attending art openings and going to restaurants but mainly meeting at the Youki Singe Tea Room, a North Beach dive where pot smoking is allowed- but only in a small room.
Elodie is the woman who sets the tales down. She writes only when in the Tea Room, leaving her notebooks there. The characters- the collection of beauties- seem to have no ambition, content to simply live like butterflies, pushed by the winds of life. Connections between them turn to love, break up, and realign. There is no real plot; it’s just events happening in the vignettes.  

While reading the book, I didn’t much care for most of the characters. Which makes it odd that I later found myself thinking about them, and going back and rereading sections of the book. The prose is beautiful.The vignettes are like little jewels. The book is physically beautiful, too, illustrated mostly with old Japanese woodblock prints but with a couple of 20th century works. To read this book is enjoyable, even if I didn’t connect with most of the characters. 

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