Jane Austen never got around to writing Pride and Prejudice Two, in which Elizabeth, after her much-publicized divorce from Darcy, moves to Manhattan, opens a chic lingerie boutique, and has a passionate affair with the ruggedly handsome, boldly savage certified public accountant she meets while browsing among diamond trinkets in Van Cleef & Arpels. But Jane Austen didn’t have a good agent. Judith Krantz, on the other hand, must have extracted an adequate incentive — roughly equal to the GNP of a small developing nation — to tamper, after 14 years, with a classic. Scruples Two takes up where Scruples, her mint-making first novel, left off, spoiling its happy ending in the process. The result is a confection of romantic fantasy, sex fantasy, shopping fantasy, and furniture-servants-and-underwear-of-the-rich fantasy that’s hard to distinguish from Scruples the First, even if anyone were interested in both Judith Krantz and distinctions.
At the end of Scruples, our heroine, Billy Winthrop Orsini, having turned herself from a poor, fat little rich girl into a sleek, sex-craving, inconceivably rich woman who has opened a shopping nirvana called Scruples in Beverly Hills, was pregnant and joyfully awaiting the Oscar about to befall her second husband, ruggedly handsome movie producer Vito Orsini. At the beginning of Scruples Two, the Oscar comes through and the marriage falls apart, ending in Vito’s obliviousness, Billy’s miscarriage, and divorce. Billy boots Vito out but welcomes in his deepest secret, Gigi, a previously unmentioned teenage daughter from an earlier marriage, who arrives, waiflike, the night of the Oscar party. Billy transforms Gigi into a delectable young woman even faster than she transformed herself. Soon Gigi is a gourmet cook, an accomplished seductress of a blond young Englishman, and ”in a perpetual state of the obsession of first love, on a merry-go-round that never stopped, her head whirling, her heart yearning.”
The Englishman splits, leaving Gigi forlorn; Billy’s plan for a glittering nationwide chain of Scruples goes up in smoke, leaving Billy forlorn; Billy flees to Paris to have her wounds licked by a new lover; eventually she and Gigi team up to put out a glamour-crammed clothes catalog. I hope I’m not giving away too much when I reveal that the catalog is called…but you’ve already guessed. At the end of the book Billy is pregnant again, this time with twins, and perhaps also with the idea for a mail-order furniture business to be called Scruples Three.
Krantz would be a sure thing for a Nobel prize if only the phlegmatic Swedes hadn’t neglected to establish a Nobel prize for clichés. Billy’s lover in Paris ”gave out so much physical strength just sitting there that he’d probably welcome a fight. On the other hand he had something of the unmistakably scholarly mien, the furrowed forehead of a professor crossing the Harvard Yard.” Well, if you are being paid at the rate of approximately $50,000 per yard for your prose, furrowed Harvard foreheads are worth their weight in movie options. The book leaves out all the things its readers will want left out, such as politics, poverty, and orgasms that don’t occur simultaneously, and puts in all the things that its readers will want put in, such as a cake recipe in the form of dialogue and starry-eyed glimpses through the keyholes of the rich. It may not have the soaring, genteel rags-to-riches trajectory of Scruples, but there’s assault by gossip column and other potboiling developments. There are also signs that Krantz can be convincing — for instance, in some of the Paris passages, written out of real curiosity and affection rather than her usual assembly-line exaggeration. But mostly this book is canned goods, not half bad as canned goods go, but not half good as novels go. D+