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Sloane Crosley’s The Clasp reimagines the class preoccupations of 19th-century France for millennials

Picador

The Clasp is one of those books where you half-suspect the author came up with the title first and everything else second.

It’s the first novel from Sloane Crosley, the renowned essayist behind I Was Told There’d Be Cake (speaking of showy titles), and it plays again and again on various clasps. There are jewelry clasps — the clasps of necklaces, both real and imaginary — and there are embracing clasps, hugs between friends and more-than-friends. (Has the word clasp now lost all meaning for you too?)

This is not to say that The Clasp feels forced. But it’s a very clever book, and it knows how clever it is.

It revolves around Guy de Maupassant’s 1884 short story The Necklace,” which Crosley’s characters have all read at one point or another and describe as “unbearably sad.” It’s about a woman who borrows a beautiful diamond necklace from her wealthy friend, loses it, and bankrupts herself to replace it. In the end, after 10 years of poverty and hard labor, she finds out the necklace was fake all along.

“The Necklace” is a story about authenticity and counterfeits, about what we consider to be valuable and why. And those concepts, updated for 2016, are what concern the main characters of The Clasp.

The book’s characters all have complicated relationships with authenticity

They’re a group of college friends, approaching 30 and only sporadically in touch; The Clasp throws them together at a wealthy friend’s wedding. Victor, nervous and awkward, is hiding his recent firing from the internet’s seventh-biggest search engine. Nathaniel, the smooth and self-consciously literary TV writer, is hiding the fact that he hasn’t written for a show in two years. And Kezia, who left her middle-management job at a prestigious jewelry company to work for a megalomaniac pop art jewelry designer, is trying to hide the fact that she hates her job.

Over the course of the novel, the three friends find themselves on the trail of a necklace that might be the very necklace of de Maupassant’s story. They go from California to Florida to New York to France; they get into bar fights and sneak into chateaux. All the while, Kezia is preoccupied over trying to find a fix for the expensive and unwieldy cloisonné clasp on her boss’s most important necklace. And all the while, the three friends think about questions of authenticity.

Like de Maupassant’s heroine, they’re all obsessed with convincing the rest of the world that they are happier and wealthier and more successful than they really are — but they’re also aware that the rest of the world is probably faking, just like they are.

So even though Kezia has always had a bit of a crush on Nathaniel, she’s pretty sure she’s just drawn to the person he’s pretending to be, not the person he actually is. And even though Victor is in love with Kezia, he keeps wondering if maybe he’s in love with the idea he’s projecting onto her, not the person she is underneath.

Through the lens of this trio of privileged millennials, de Maupassant’s class preoccupations become questions of self-actualization. If a 19th-century French woman defined herself by her physical possessions, these characters define themselves by the trappings of their lives: their glamorous jobs, their romantic successes.

What is constant is the need for affirmation in the eyes of others. The heroine of “The Necklace” can stand being middle class, as long as everyone who sees her wearing the necklace thinks she’s wealthy. And the characters of The Clasp can stand being unhappy and unsuccessful, as long as their friends think otherwise.

In the resulting inauthentic world, the notion of “the clasp” takes on paramount importance. The connection between friends is the single thing that gives life its meaning and coherence.

The Clasp smartly weds its theme and source material to modern ennui

In the midst of all this philosophizing, The Clasp manages to be a warm and funny romp. Crosley built her name on trenchant analysis of modern foibles, and she lives up to her reputation here. The parodies of Victor’s tech office, Nathaniel’s LA scenester life, and Kezia’s dilapidated-chic jewelry company are precise and pointed; the characterization is as tight as a drum.

And again, the book is extremely clever. Which is not to say it’s glib; it’s just very aware of itself. It’s self-conscious about its relationship with its source material and about all the different ways there are to play on the concept of “clasp;” it is just a little bit mannered.

That does not make it a bad book. At times it is an inelegant book by a very smart and talented writer. But this is a symptom of first-novel-itis, one that I fully expect to disappear in Crosley’s next novel.

Unlike “The Necklace,” The Clasp is not unbearably sad. It’s too sprawling for that, and too affectionately aware of its characters’ pettiness. But it’s smart and entertaining, a gently satirical examination of what we value and why.

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