Where good taste means having a children’s party in a space decorated like the banquet room of the embittered Miss Havisham
A Passion for Parties. By Carolyne Roehm. Broadway, 255 pp., $50.
By Janice Harayda
Novelist Paula Fox writes in a recent memoir that she once stayed in a Marcel Breuer–designed house in postwar London, owned by a glamorous couple, that made her think about the preoccupation rich people so often have with “the effect of their style on others.” Fox noticed that wealthy acquaintances often seemed to have an “insane confidence that the objects with which they surrounded themselves reflected their praiseworthy character, not the ease with which they spent their money.”
Carolyne Roehm is “a lifestyle expert” who lives in New York, Colorado and Connecticut, according to the dust jacket of A Passion for Parties. But she sounds remarkably like the people met Fox in London in 1946. Roehm serves up hundreds of color photos of events she has hosted — a dance under a tent at beach house, a white-tie Hunt Ball for 375 people, an “East-West fantasy” with “an authentic Chinese chef” and a room festooned with nearly a hundred red paper lanterns. At times, Roehm refers vaguely to the cost of all this. She says she bought her Chinese lanterns for “half off” but that they are “now very expensive.” (One possible translation: What a shame that 9/11 hit Chinatown so hard that merchants had to raise their prices and drive up the cost of parties.) But mostly Roehm keeps up the pretense that in order to achieve the effects she does, “you need only the inspiration and the energy and the desire to do so.” Money, apparently, has nothing to do with it.
You might wonder what kind of event you could host if you had enough “inspiration” and “energy” and “desire.” How about a Halloween party for children in a space decorated to resemble “Miss Havisham’s decaying banquet room in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations”? Why on earth would you take your inspiration from an embittered, jilted spinster who treated children as cruelly as adults? Especially when a party includes guests so young, they might been happier with Dora the Explorer? Think of the decorating potential. “Cobwebs, fog, and a look of disheveled splendor became the theme,” Roehm writes. She admits that some children found “truly frightening” the ghastly, rented skeletons with mouths full of teeth frozen open in a horrified scream.
The more you read of A Passion for Parties, the more it recalls not the rich of postwar London but their ancestors from the age of Dickens. The book is full of 21st- century party props like computer-generated invitations and CDs for favors. But it is profoundly Victorian in its focus on the subjugation of both the indoor and outdoor environment to individual whims. Any real-life Miss Havisham would feel right at home among its parties.
Best line: The book has 20 pages of recipes for party foods, many with only a half dozen or so ingredients. Serving mini BLTs as an hors d’oeuvre is one idea.
Worst line: “During the busy holiday season, a cocktail party allows one to see many friends at once.” During the busy holiday season, we need authors to tell us something we don’t know. Obvious lines like this in a book are the equivalent of dull food at a party.
Editors: Jennifer Josephy and Donna Bulesco
Published: October 2006
© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.