A white-hot novel documenting the friendship that arises between two very different women, Veronica, the new book from Mary Gaitskill, is a heady, hallucinatory narrative—another walk on the wild side from a writer who has never shied from tackling potentially contentious topics. Gaitskill’s work (which includes the short story that inspired the 2002 film Secretary) is often characterized by a dark eroticism and probes the raw emotional states of characters on the edge.
Veronica is narrated by a has-been fashion model named Allison whose career peaked during the ’70s, and who, having survived that era of glitter and excess, is now paying the price. Suffering from hepatitis C, Allison, all but broke, lives in California, in a drab quarter of San Rafael. The narrative spans only a single day, but it covers a great deal of ground, moving in and out of the present as the 46-year-old Allison looks back on her life. As a teenage runaway during the 1960s, she ends up in San Francisco, living in a purple rooming house and selling flowers in nightclubs, until she meets Alain, a bigwig in the modeling industry. He takes her as his mistress, and her ascent as a model ensues.
But when, a few years later, Alain betrays her, Allison’s career stalls, and she is forced to work at an ad agency in New York. There, she meets Veronica, an editor with attitude. Outspoken, brash, older by a decade, Veronica is frumpy and unhip, the antithesis of Allison and an improbable ally. Yet the two develop an enduring friendship, and the durability of their bond stands in contrast to the disposability of Allison’s relationships with her fellow models and with various lovers.
Learning that Veronica has AIDS, which she contracted from a promiscuous, bisexual boyfriend, triggers a complex range of emotions in Allison, including feelings of guilt. In the end, she finds in Veronica’s decline a reflection of her own journey, as her looks begin to fade, and she is forced to come to terms with her humanity. Gaitskill’s lively portrayal of the carefree ’70s and affluent ’80s, her superlative powers of description and delicate handling of sensitive topic matter have resulted in a profound narrative about beauty and mortality, loss and redemption.