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Jewish Journal

A Working Girl Can Win

by Michael Aushenker

November 15, 2001 | 7:00 pm

"She was thinking about how, growing up, she'd force herself to look at the sun. Just because you weren't supposed to. Just to prove she could. Except she couldn't." -- Lucinda Rosenfeld, describing Phoebe Fine, protagonist of "What She Saw"

Forgive Lucinda Rosenfeld if 2001 seems a bit anti-climactic. For the young author, it was the previous two years that provided the most action-packed odyssey of her life.

In February 1999, Rosenfeld, a freelance journalist, had telephoned the Random House editor of Deborah Garrison's "A Working Girl Can't Win" to request a copy of that book for an article she was writing. The senior editor, Daniel Menaker, asked Rosenfeld to pick it up in person.

Menaker cottoned to Rosenfeld and asked if she wrote.

Rosenfeld offered four chapters of an unfinished novel crafted while she was bored at odd temporary jobs in her 20s. A week later, Menaker committed to publishing what became "What She Saw," a novel about what Rosenfeld's protagonist, Phoebe Fine, saw in all the men in her life.

After the hardback edition of Rosenfeld's novel hit bookshelves in September 2000 (the paperback came out this fall), Miramax Films snapped up the movie rights.

"They told me that they were interested," Rosenfeld, 31, told The Journal, "and it took several weeks before approval. I couldn't sleep for a month."

A less generous soul might attribute Rosenfeld's rapid rise to an epic case of serendipity, but talent played a large part in the equation. Not yet 30 when she sold "What She Saw," Rosenfeld had built a reputation as the bright young writer of magazine articles, book reviews, and a weekly New York Post night-life column.

Her book follows alternately insouciant and self-loathing Phoebe as she stumbles from one bad relationship to another, beginning in elementary school with first crush Roger Mancuso and straight through the romances of her mid-20s.

Each chapter is devoted to a boyfriend, with names such as Spitty Clark, Humphrey Fung and Neil Schmertz. We witness firsthand how these male influences impose themselves and their world view on Phoebe, who ultimately disposes of each of them with abrupt, passive-aggressive finesse.

Despite a disclaimer reminding the reader that "What She Saw" is a work of fiction, Rosenfeld and her protagonist Phoebe have much in common. Both grew up in Jewish-Catholic New Jersey neighborhoods, where Rosenfeld said people were often thrown by her non-Jewish-sounding first name, Lucinda. The author also became self-conscious about her very Jewish surname, which she now embraces. Hoover University, the setting for chapters 4 through 8, is ersatz Cornell University, where Rosenfeld majored in comparative literature.

After her novel's release, Rosenfeld derived much humor from the steady stream of ex-boyfriends who contacted her, assuming they were inspirations for Phoebe's flings. "They're all really composites," Rosenfeld said of her characters. "It's definitely got a lot of Cornell in it, but it's a jumble, like any first novel."

While attending her Ivy League alma mater, Rosenfeld expressed no desire to be a writer. "I didn't start writing till I was out of college," she said. "I had a writer boyfriend who said you could write a novel by the time you're 25. That didn't happen, but I did it by 30."

"What She Saw" is very conversational and rich in detail. It shows the same clever observations, humor and young-adult essence as F. Scott Fitzgerald's fictionalized spin on his Princeton years, "This Side of Paradise." It's the kind of quick read that is so readable, it's edible -- one can consume it in a couple of hours.

Perhaps the very breeziness of "What She Saw" and its sly pokes at teenage and 20-something shallowness and pretension are what led some critics to call the book itself shallow and pretentious. Though notices for "What She Saw" were overwhelmingly favorable, a reviewer at the New York Times Book Review made derogatory comments.

"That one really hurt," said Rosenfeld, who found a perverse joy in reading excerpts of her negative Library Journal review at book readings.

Nevertheless, 2002 should be rewarding for the rising talent. Screenwriter Jessica Bendinger ("Bring It On") is currently adapting "What She Saw" for the big screen. And Rosenfeld will work on a sequel to her book, titled "Why She Bothered." The next installment will herald the return of Phoebe, a character she is eager to revisit, despite having spent the better part of five years immersed in her world.

"I know my book better than I know my own life," Rosenfeld said.

Adding to the confusion: Rosenfeld recently relocated to the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn (the borough has become a happening hotbed for up-and-coming writers). It was only after she settled in that Rosenfeld remembered that Phoebe, by book's end, had also wound up in the same neighborhood.

Perhaps there's more of Rosenfeld in "What She Saw" than she'll admit.

"I did write about a young woman," Rosenfeld said. "Only I will ever know the truth."

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