In 1884, the French writer Guy de Maupassant—a rakish 1-percenter who went mad from syphilis—produced what some consider the world’s most perfect short story. Vivacious young Mathilde borrows a necklace from a wealthy friend in order to go to a party. She is poor but charmant; on the way home she loses the pendant; she and her husband secretly replace it and spend the rest of their youth toiling to pay off their debt. Ten years pass, and Mathilde reveals to her friend the truth of what happened. The friend is horrified—the jewelry was fake all along, and Mathilde has squandered her life for nothing. With “The Necklace,” de Maupassant distilled the sorrows of time, class, and fate into a single, flawless teardrop.
Sloane Crosley’s first novel—she is a best-selling essayist, rightly revered for two mordant and winsome collections, I Was Told There’d Be Cake and How Did You Get This Number—is not called The Necklace, though de Maupassant’s “The Necklace” plays a starring role in the plot. Instead The Clasp takes its name from a jeweler’s doohickey, a humble mechanism of connection and release. Crosley, with her quirky cleverness, seems more in league with the doohickeys of the world than with the emeralds. She’s interested not so much in transcendent beauty as in the small gears that hold people together and sometimes force them apart; when the objects you cherish could easily turn out to be fake, what matters is not what you cling to but the fact that you cling to it.
The Clasp intertwines the stories of Victor, Kezia, and Nathaniel, three friends from college who, reunited at the wedding of a hotel heiress, fall into an old and dysfunctional dance. Victor—newly fired from a dead-end tech job—plays the mopey outsider, nurturing an unrequited yearning for Kezia. Kezia both cares for and is exasperated by Victor. She works for a deranged jeweler prone to lightly beating her with plants and has a crush on Nathaniel, the natty former lit major now ensconced in Hollywood’s gorgeously vacuous TV scene. Nathaniel is quietly reeling from the collapse of his collegiate ambitions (and cushioning his losses in model flesh). None of them have turned into who they expected to be. None of them want the others to know how they feel.
And that could have been the book—a wedding slideshow of affecting screwball encounters between keenly imagined characters; a modern-day comedy of manners. (“Sophie, the assistant in cowboy boots, had manifested, blinking at Kezia like a fawn … Sophie wanted Kezia’s job. Goal attained, she could then crawl up [boss] Rachel’s vagina, curl up in her uterus, and go to sleep forever.”) But into the mix Crosley tosses a diamond-encrusted MacGuffin: a necklace stolen by Nazis and hidden somewhere in France, its location known only to the mother of the groom and—by a champagne-greased swerve of destiny—to Victor. Commence caper! Woebegone Victor sets off to retrieve the prize, which turns out to be modeled on the lavalier of de Maupassant’s short story. Kezia and Nathaniel also find themselves en route to Paris, Kezia to secure a new clasp for her sociopathic boss’ signature design, Nathaniel because he has nothing better to do. Amid a tinkling of cosmic gears, the three characters converge, their trajectory informed by the questions of “The Necklace.” How do you separate the valuable from the worthless, the real from the fake? What is risked when you withhold secrets from your friends?
But, like the Parisian tinkerer who serves as an untraditional deus ex machina, Crosley works in miniature. To spend too much time on grand themes would be to miss the fineness of these wares. Scenes are shaped from a material about 60 percent cleverer and more sparkling than reality. A wedding guest “[grips] a dinner roll as if he had freshly yanked it from the chest cavity of a buffalo.” When a busybody co-worker wraps Victor in a hug, “something in the somberness of [her] gaze told him she would slash his tires if he moved. Victor didn’t have a car. She would slash his MetroCard.”
Crosley’s stylishness as a writer never tips over into shtickiness or stifles her warmth—it only makes the flowering of genuine emotion more powerful. When these wisecracking characters speak honestly to each other, the prose slows down and gives them room to breathe. Here Nathaniel and Kezia wait for the sun to set on the waters of a French beach.
“Watch.” He fixed his eyes on the horizon.
“What am I looking for?”
“The green flash. This is what happens in Malibu. The second the sun sinks past the ocean, there’s a line of green.”
Previously in the novel, the lines of sight were reversed—Kezia looked at Nathaniel looking at himself—but now Nathaniel watches Kezia watching the horizon. It’s a subtle shift, but it tells us everything we need to know.
“Well, that was disappointing.” She elbowed him in the ribs. “No green flash. Am I blind? I didn’t see it.”
He hadn’t seen it either. But he also hadn’t been looking in the right direction.
Crosley deftly rewrites The Great Gatsby, another exploration of authenticity and falsehood in which youngish friends and lovers seek to recapture the past. But in her version, the green light—the dream—never appears: These characters don’t even know what they want. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that their desires are too diffuse to collapse into a single brilliant point on the horizon.
“I have coveted everything and taken pleasure in nothing,” says Victor near the denouement, echoing a line de Maupassant selected for his epitaph. That mixture of yearning and distraction and disappointment, beautifully conjured, is a dog whistle for a certain kind of millennial in late-quarter-life crisis. Crosley gets the feeling so right, makes her touch so delicate yet unsentimental, that disaffected quasi-adults mourning the promise of their younger selves the world over will read The Clasp and weep. Of course, other readers will gnash their teeth in frustration: Who cares whether a relatively privileged trio of white college graduates manages to self-actualize in the artichoke garden of a French chateau? (Dear other readers: If you wish Crosley had focused on the precious necklace and a French family’s courageous effort to keep it out of Nazi hands, don’t despair! Just read All the Light We Cannot See.) Gatsby’s tragedy was the failure of society to deliver on the trembling premonition of the green light, to help a working-class man cross all that dark water bearing him backward. The lesser elegy of Nathaniel and Kezia and Victor has to do with their lostness, their lack of beacon or purpose, the fact that they aren’t even “looking in the right direction.”
In a blog post for Lit Hub, Crosley revealed that she and her editor cut more than 250 pages from The Clasp before sending it to press. A reader feels that lost poundage, feels the breezy lightness of the final version straining to become something else, as when Victor summarizes his European adventure in a sentence whose oracular weight is not quite earned. “Nothing is lost until people start claiming that they’ve found it,” he says. Elsewhere, he decides that the tragedy of “The Necklace” is “not that the necklace was fake, but that [Mathilde] was real.”
In these moments, The Clasp reads like a comedy that wishes it could range more widely across the spectrum of human feeling. A sense of structural or thematic scaling back resonates with—though it is not identical to—the characters’ own gentle disillusionment. “You don’t know what it’s like to never get what you want, to go so far down a path that you don’t even know what you want, but what you do know is that you just don’t like yourself,” Victor rebukes his friends. The book betrays a similar uneasiness in its own skin. Hence the mild case of first novel–itis: a reliance on symbols (the lost necklace), foils (de Maupassant), motifs (the short story), and genre tropes, not to mention cataracts of occasionally unnecessary plot.
But Crosley has always had a sixth sense for ambient, identity-based dissatisfaction. (In a 2007 New York Observer profile, she told writer Leon Neyfakh that “the really scary thing about New York is not the fear that everyone is hiding their true self … it’s that they’re not—that that’s it.”) The Clasp’s faint anxiety about incompleteness vs. self-actualization perfectly serves its central theme. So while I’m desperate to buy this book a drink and tell it how great it is, perhaps I’m underestimating its self-awareness. I bet Crosley knows how great it is, and that the next one will be even better.
The Clasp by Sloane Crosley. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.