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July 11, 2003

Sextet and the city

I've always maintained that the best part of HBO's Sex and the City is neither the sex nor the city but the friendship among the four main characters. By that standard, Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez's The Dirty Girls Social Club immediately ups the ante, because this debut novel is about six sassy girlfriends. There's Lauren, the epicenter of the group; a bulimic, lovelorn newspaper columnist; Rebecca, who runs her magazine in a manner that makes Martha Stewart look laid-back; Elizabeth, a popular news anchor who's hiding a rather pedestrian secret; Amber, whose subplot taught me more about history than I probably learned in high school; Usnavys, who only thinks she appreciates the finer things in life; and Sara, a housewife and mother who needs to work on her self-esteem, among other things. They've all been friends since their days at Boston University and get together twice a year for a good old-fashioned round of gabbing, gossiping, and giggling.

There are problems with Valdes-Rodriguez's book to be honest. Characters say things like, "I want to take my scythe and carve through the jungle of ignorance." One of the love interests is, improbably, a drug dealer with a heart of gold. Epiphanies are not doled out evenly among the women. Although I liked the sprawling feel of the novel, Valdes-Rodriguez might have chosen to work with a smaller cast of characters.

Then again, what the hell. This book was obviously not intended to be an example of restrained storytelling. In the course of just 308 pages, the characters encounter eating disorders, spousal abuse, adultery, coming out, the looming threat of unemployment, racism, poverty, alcoholism and their own deadbeat dads. Sounds pretty gloomy-and it is a credit to Valdes-Rodriguez's writing style that none of her characters wallow in self-pity. Even Amber and Lauren, the most militant, are more interested in reversing the effects of prejudice in their lives than complaining about them.

The highest praise I can give this book is that I hope it is the bestseller it was engineered to be. So far, the plan seems to be working. At press time, it was number 20 on the New York Times bestseller list and-perhaps most tellingly-Jennifer Lopez has already purchased the rights to the film. While I dread Sony/Columbia Pictures' almost inevitable bastardization of the story, I have to admit that seeing the movie will probably get a lot more people to read the book.

Does Dirty Girls Social Club have what it takes to become a contemporary classic? Bridget Jones shouldn't be too worried. While it's a lot more substantial than the majority of the titles in the chick-lit genre, it lacks the heartfelt heft of something like Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood because its ambitions are more political than emotional. Valdes-Rodriguez suggests a paradigm shift in the way we view Latinos and Latinas, and since the book is selling, her ideas have already begun to infiltrate the popular culture. Ultimately, though, the geopolitical ramifications of Social Club make us care less about the social club as individuals.

Valdes-Rodriguez has captured the zeitgeist all right, but there are a few minor snags that could stop the book from reaching the widest possible audience. St. Martin's Press has printed the book in both Spanish and English, but the English version is still peppered with colloquialisms, slang words and even entire paragraphs in Spanish. The code switching is fine. This is, after all, how the characters speak with one another. However, one should be able to figure out the meaning of the Spanish words from their context in the sentence, and this is not always the case. I envision a bunch of irate readers investing in a Spanish-English dictionary before they are finally able to finish the novel.

Another of the flaws is Valdes-Rodriguez's ribald, almost embarrassing rendering of the sex scenes. I have a friend who loved Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and while she would enjoy the similar themes in Dirty Girls Social Club, frankly, I feel a little dirty passing it off to her (pun intended). Am I suggesting that Valdes-Rodriguez should censor herself? Of course not. If she likes candid sex scenes, then she should write candid sex scenes. But this is a book that could reach a very big audience, and it is a book that needs to-the message is that important. Including Cinemax-style sexcapades only limits the impact the book's other messages will have on its close-minded audience-who are, when you think about it, exactly the kind of people who should be reading it.

Rumor has it that Valdes-Rodriguez only needed six days to write The Dirty Girls Social Club, her promising but imperfect debut. I'd love to see what she could do in six months.