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[whitespace] Reviews by Michelle Goldberg

The Queen of Whale Cay: The Eccentric Story of 'Joe' Carstairs, Fastest Woman on Water
By Kate Summerscale
Viking, 241 pp., $21.95

It's a wonder that most people have never heard of Joe Carstairs. In the 1920s she was a famous boat-racing champion, an oil heiress and tattooed lesbian lothario who decorated her mansions with pictures of her 120 lovers, who included Marlene Dietrich and Dolly Wilde, Oscar's niece.

In the 1940s, Carstairs bought Whale Cay, an island in the Bahamas, and became essentially the ruler of her own country. But when she died at 93 in 1993, the formerly legendary eccentric had become a reclusive, largely forgotten old woman.

The Queen of Whale Cay, a biography by Kate Summerscale, should restore some of Carstairs' well-deserved fame. "Her ambitions were made the more astonishing by the fact that she was a woman, but they were overreaching by any standards," Summerscale writes. "Fueled by her money, she pursued a fantasy of autonomy and omnipotence, in which she was variously the fastest creature on the seas, an immortal boy and a great ruler of men. Her projects were so outlandish that they took her beyond fame and notoriety to obscurity." The book suffers a little from Summerscale's inability to really get inside Carstairs' mind--a flaw which is hardly Summerscale's fault, since Carstairs fled from introspection ("I never felt anything about myself," she says). We do get a sense of Carstairs' loneliness, her strange way of investing all her feelings in inanimate objects and her tendency to buy affection. But it doesn't really matter that The Queen of Whale Cay isn't a psychologically probing portrait--Carstairs' extravagant adventures are much more compelling than her emotions.

The Student Body
By Jane Harvard
Villard, 349 pp., $23

Jane Harvard, the author of The Student Body, a sharply intelligent and lurid thriller set in the nation's most respected Ivy League school, isn't a person at all. Instead, the name's a pseudonym for the book's four authors, all Harvard graduates. How four writers created a novel with such a consistent style and seamless narrative is a mystery to rival The Student Body's deliciously serpentine story.

The novel follows Toni Isaacs, a black Harvard student and intrepid reporter for the school newspaper, as she digs into an alleged undergrad prostitution ring (the book was inspired by a real prostitution scandal at Brown). As her investigation grows, more and more Harvard students, teachers and administrators become implicated, and soon she's being persecuted by a crack-smoking dean, racist editors, a cunning madame obsessed with business-school jargon and a Machiavellian professor of cultural studies, Dayton Moore. The details are perfect--Moore's books have titles like On Doing the Nasty and Shame, Shame, Shame. He screens Deep Throat in class only to be interrupted by screaming anti-porn feminists, who are in turn disrupted by a cadre of sexy sophisticates who stage an impromptu strip show. Such scenes make The Student Body much more than a trashy beach book (though it is that, too), because underneath all the page-turning skullduggery is an enormously witty multiculti farce.

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From the June 15-28, 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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