The Books

By The Editors / July / August 1999
November 7th, 2007

Run Catch Kiss by Amy Sohn '95 (Simon & Schuster, 246 pages, $23).

By Jennifer Sutton

oor Ariel Steiner. She's an aspiring actress fresh out of Brown who fantasizes about appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone, getting rave reviews in the New York Times, and becoming Gwyneth Paltrow's best friend. In real life she lives with her parents in Brooklyn Heights, and the only paying job she can find is as a temp receptionist in a stodgy midtown Manhattan office. Plus her agent wants her to lose fifteen pounds, and she hasn't gotten laid in months.

Ariel isn't one to sit around and mope, though; at least not for long. She swears off her mother's kasha varnishkes, saves enough cash to get her own apartment, and embarks on a series of dates - albeit with guys who quickly reveal themselves to be narcissistic commitment phobes. One night, frustrated with her tendency to attract jerks and her failure to become acting's next It Girl, Ariel sits at her computer and pounds out her sob story. On a whim she sends it to an alternative New York newspaper called City Week.

What happens next is an attention-starved drama queen's dream: the editors of City Week ask Ariel to write a weekly first-person column, envisioning a "true confessions of a single girl" kind of thing, "a perils of Pauline from a slacker slut perspective." The editors want Ariel to go out on dates and literally kiss and tell. "Go get busy," they say. And she does.

That's the premise of Run Catch Kiss, Amy Sohn's first book, which is billed as fiction but bears many striking resemblances to the author's actual life. Like Steiner, Sohn wanted to be an actress and instead fell into writing a first-person sex column for an alternative newspaper (the New York Press). Sohn, like Steiner, regales thousands of New Yorkers with explicit details of her romantic and not-so-romantic encounters. While Steiner - or is it Sohn? - has a loyal female audience that appreciates her candor about sex, a great number of her readers are heavy-breathing guys who keep her column next to their copies of Hustler magazine. In the book Steiner doesn't care. She is less interested in acting or journalism as crafts than in "walking into a room and having her reputation precede her." The City Week column gives her the exposure she so desperately craves. Sohn once told a reporter that she wanted to become the "queen of all media." She and her character, it seems, have one consuming desire in common: "Look at me!"

- named after a children's game in which girls chase boys - tracks Ariel Steiner's rise and fall as a columnist. Despite her constant neediness and self-doubt, Ariel is smart, funny, sexy, and painfully frank, a seductress in a minimizer bra and control-top pantyhose. So why does she punish herself by pursuing men who are alternately selfish, emotionally dysfunctional, and opposed to kissing? We never really understand why Ariel is drawn to cretins, other than that they make her columns colorful. Then the inevitable miracle happens: Ariel actually meets a halfway-decent guy and finds herself having a nice, normal (i.e., dull) love life. She starts fabricating stories to maintain the kinkiness of her columns. Therein lies her journalistic ruin.

People either love Amy Sohn's frank and candid approach to writing about sex and relationships, or they hate it. "Nobody seems to fall in the middle," says the twenty-five-year-old first-time novelist. Luckily, Sohn counts her parents and current boyfriend among her supporters. "Female Trouble," the autobiographical column Sohn has written for the New York Press since 1996, has, she says, "worn in" the people who are close to her: "When Run Catch Kiss was published," she adds, "they'd already developed the coping mechanisms they needed." Sohn nevertheless insists that readers trying to puzzle out the autobiographical parts of her novel are wasting their time. "If the book was about an eight-year-old growing up on a farm in Iowa," she says, "no one would care." - Chad Galts

Run Catch Kiss

And therein lies the difference between Steiner and Sohn. Sohn still has her columnist job and has moved on to screenwriting as well as novel-writing. She's part of a hot, new literary (or not-so-literary, depending on whom you ask) pack of young women writers who are cashing in on their insecurities about their weight, careers, and love lives. Are they really such losers?

In Sohn's case, at least in print, the answer is no. Run Catch Kiss displays her sharp, sardonic wit and a good sense of comic timing; there are numerous laugh-out-loud moments, such as when Ariel describes her new friend, Sara: "At different points in her life, she'd been suicidal, bulimic, on Prozac, president of her temple youth group, knocked up, doped up, coked up, institutionalized, and a member of NA, OA, AA, and Phi Beta Kappa." Then there's the night that Ariel, still living with her family, dresses for a date in a black wig and a white, second-hand nurse's dress hemmed to "ass-length." "Cute hot, not slut hot," she thinks. Her parents catch sight of her as she heads out the door. "You look like one of the daughters from Fiddler on the Roof," laughs her father. "How ya doing, Chava? Why aren't your legs covered?"

Sohn is also a bold and honest storyteller, holding nothing back in her descriptions of Ariel's bedroom encounters (or telephone encounters or movie-theater encounters), which is refreshing at first. But there is too little eroticism in the sex scenes, and they eventually grow tiresome; you can only talk about impersonal clutching and erect members for so long before your language loses its dramatic and rhetorical edge.

Not all worthwhile relationships have to be elegant and pretty, but they do need to get under the skin. Ariel herself yearns for intimacy, for "passion and companionship and deep discussion and compliments delivered to me regularly without any misgivings or posturing." On the one hand, her often fruitless search for love rings true for many twenty- and thirty-something women. But what works in Sohn's newspaper columns doesn't have enough staying power for a novel. Run Catch Kiss ends up resembling just what most young women aren't looking for: a hasty, superficial lover who doesn't stick around for breakfast. It's a quick, steamy, amusing read, but it ends abruptly and leaves readers with little to think about.

Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty by Nancy L. Etcoff '76, (Doubleday, 288 pages, $23.95).

By Michael J. Tarr

hat makes you you? Academics who spend their careers studying this question often find their research crashing on the rocks of the same old question: nature or nurture? The debate has changed over time, revealing itself to be at once deeply political and quickly influenced by academic trends. The cultural relativity associated with the liberalism of the 1960s and the radical genetic determinism that gave rise to books such as The Bell Curve have waxed and waned over the last three decades. One of the hottest disciplines within cognitive science, for example, is "evolutionary psychology." This approach accounts for mental structures as though they were beaks on Darwin's finches: natural selection expresses itself through the survival of certain thought processes that prove to have adaptive value for the organism. Such evolutionary thinking is shaping our understanding of the origins of many cognitive mechanisms, including reasoning, language, and perception.

In Survival of the Prettiest, Nancy Etcoff makes a strong showing as a proponent of evolutionary psychology. The book offers up an entertaining reexamination of how we understand, and come to prefer, certain types of beauty. "This book is an inquiry into what we find beautiful and why," Etcoff writes. "Our passionate pursuit of beauty reflects the workings of a basic instinct." To this end, Etcoff provides the reader with a dizzying array of facts and principles about beauty and behavior. For instance, "men's voices tend to be attractive if they are low, slow, and smooth," she writes. And men who shave their heads, we discover, are making "a preemptive strike to erase a sign of aging" and "exaggerate signals of strength." At least some of our preferences for physical traits, she argues, are driven by genetics, not cultural biases.

For some readers, Etcoff's thesis may be an eye opener. But for others her argument is self-evident: of all human behaviors, mate selection is the most likely to have been shaped by survival pressures. Evolutionary analysis, however, doesn't do much for our sense of individuality. That women generally prefer tall men, as implied by Etcoff's evidence, does not tell us whether you, your neighbors, or even a handful of the females in your community prefer tall men. That our mental structures are the result of evolved adaptations does not mean that our beauty preferences are completely under genetic control. We do, after all, interact with our environment.

Melrose Place and Beverly Hills, 90210. According to research begun that year, Fiji soon saw a dramatic increase in eating disorders and a sizeable jump in the number of girls describing themselves as "too big or fat." Contrary to first impressions, however, this is not clear evidence that body shape preference is a by-product of the insidious western cosmetic-media-industrial complex. There is an alternative interpretation: Fijian women harbored a dormant preference for a certain body-shape ratio. The introduction of Heather Locklear's supernormal image simply revealed this latent preference, rather than reshaping it through purely cultural means.

Consider some findings presented at a recent meeting of the American Psychiatric Association: native women of Fiji used to prefer "nicely rounded" bodies - at least until 1995, when American television was introduced to the island and young girls started getting regular doses of

This kind of interpretive ambiguity is inherent in any analysis of human behavior, and Etcoff's evolutionary approach leaves her in a similar bind. As she herself points out, humans evolved in a much more local context. During their lifetimes, proto-humans likely encountered only a small number of people. What was considered an attractive mate, and what determined mate selection over generations, varied within highly restricted subpopulations. It seems unlikely that a single, or particularly ingrained, notion of beauty would emerge. Similarly, much of Etcoff's evidence can be reinterpreted, or even counterinterpreted. Cultural differences might well be cast as innate differences. If skin color, hair texture, and height, among other things, vary across races, why not beauty preferences? Etcoff takes great pains to acknowledge that men and women across the globe have common, as well as different, ideas about appearance. Yet she returns to beauty perception as instinct, as if it were the driving force behind Western culture's fascination with cosmetics, supermodels, and so on.

So if you're a woman with a preference for short men, or you're a man who likes brunettes, are you on a creaky step of the evolutionary ladder? Don't fret. Survival of the Prettiest doesn't leave you in the Darwinian backwater. Etcoff's evidence, for instance, of infants' marked preferences for certain facial configurations indicates that whatever predispositions nature does provide are rather general - symmetry, unblemished skin, and the like. Beyond that, it's up to you.

Michael Tarr is associate professor of cognitive and linguistic sciences.

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July / August 1999