Book Review: The Book of Essie

book of essieThe Book of Essie
by Meghan Maclean Weir
Contemporary Fiction
319 pages
Releases June 12, 2018

It’s so hard to decide where to start with this book. First: it’s amazing. Second: Content Warning. For a number of reasons. Rape. Incest. Gay Conversion Therapy. Suicide. Nothing extremely graphic; the most graphic concerns the conversion therapy, which is where the suicide occurs. That section was hard to read. A lot of sections were hard to read. But the book was SO GOOD. It’s about Essie and Roarke’s escape from all that, so ultimately it focuses on the future, and it’s a hopeful, light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel kind of book. But daaaaang these topics.

I loved so many of the characters here. Essie and Roarke, Roarke’s best friend Blake, Liberty, the reporter, her boyfriend and her camerawoman. They’re all amazing. Essie’s determination, Roarke’s courage, Blake’s understanding – every character has something to offer in this book. The way Liberty’s history entwines with Essie’s, so she knows where she’s coming from and can offer advice from experience, and how Liberty flashes back to her childhood so the reader understands her conflicts – it’s all just so amazing.

I identify pretty closely with a lot of this book myself; I was raised very conservative Christian, though at least not in a crazy cult like Liberty was. But the way Liberty talks about her boyfriend challenging her beliefs and waking her up from them hit very close to home. It was weird to see it on the page.

“I had been home as well, a painful few months during which I began to see my parents, our family, and our church as Mike might see them, as anyone who was not us would see them. I still loved my parents, very much, but I was also deeply ashamed. I began to wonder what would have happened if I’d seen it earlier….I decided that I would not go home again.”

I was cheering for Essie as she broke free of her bigoted family. Every step of the way. And Roarke – oh, Roarke, who my heart broke for, who stepped up to the plate and loved Essie in his own way, and gave Essie what she needed. It helped that Essie offered him precisely what he needed, too, but I didn’t expect how their relationship evolved.

I loved this book, start to finish. This is definitely one of my favorites of 2018.

I received this book a little early, through the Book of the Month club. It releases this Tuesday, June 12.

From the cover of The Book of Essie:

Esther Anne Hicks – Essie – is the youngest child on Six for Hicks, a reality television phenomenon. She’s grown up in the spotlight, both idolized and despised for her family’s fire-and-brimstone brand of faith. When Essie’s mother, Celia, discovers that Essie is pregnant, she arranges an emergency meeting with the show’s producers: Should they sneak Essie out of the country for an abortion? Pass the child off as Celia’s? Or try to arrange a marriage – and a ratings-blockbuster wedding? Meanwhile, Essie seeks her salvation in Roarke Richards, a senior at her high school with a secret of his own to protect, and Liberty Bell, an infamously conservative reporter. 

As Essie attempts to win the faith of Roarke and Liberty, she has to ask herself the most difficult of questions: What was the real reason her older sister left home? Who can she trust with the truth about her family? And how much is she willing to sacrifice to win her own freedom?

Written with blistering intelligence and a deep, stirring empathy, The Book of Essie brilliantly explores our darkest cultural obsessions: celebrity, class, bigotry, and the media. 

Advertisements

Book Review: The Dirty Girls Social Club

the dirty girls social club

The Dirty Girls Social Club
by Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez
Contemporary Fiction
308 pages
Published 2004

So in trying to read more inclusively, I had been looking at some prominent minority writers like Junot Diaz or Sherman Alexie (I actually had one of Alexie’s books out from the library when I realized where I’d heard his name). When the news broke about Junot Diaz, and I remembered that Sherman Alexie also had sexual harassment accusations against him, I decided instead of reading their books, I’d look up the books of the women calling them out! The Dirty Girls Social Club is the first book of what I’m calling my “Wronged Women” list. Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez wrote an article titled “I tried to warn you about Junot Diaz” about her experience with him. Others on the list include Erika Wurth, Elissa Washuta, Zinzi Clemmons, Carmen Maria Machado, and Monica Byrne. I’ve built a shelf on Goodreads for my list, and I’m sure more names will wind up on it. (Unfortunately.)

The Dirty Girls Social Club is the story of six college friends who decide to meet every six months for the rest of their lives, no matter what. The book covers one six month period, from one meeting to the next. It took me a few chapters to sort out who was who, and throughout the book I occasionally had to flip back to the first chapter, where Lauren gives a rundown of names and professions. All six are Hispanic of some flavor, whether that’s Dominican, Puerto Rican, Colombian, Spanish, or Southwestern Native American. That’s why they banded together in college. Each one has her own storyline – dealing with an abusive marriage, leaving a loveless marriage, being forcibly outed as a lesbian and learning to adjust to her new visibility, or becoming a rock star. I enjoyed how each of the six had a very individual story; they have interesting jobs and complicated love lives and unique problems.

Each of the women reflects on her Hispanic heritage in some form, whether that’s taking lessons in how to love from their parents, or fighting for recognition for their minority, or writing columns about their lives for the local newspaper. The book both shows and tells us about the differences in various Hispanic cultures.

I especially enjoyed Amber/Cuicatl (the rock star) and Elizabeth (the lesbian). The rest of the book was a little slow going at times, but I think that’s largely because I’m not a fan of contemporary fiction. I did enjoy it, though, and I’ll probably check out more of the author’s books.

From the cover of The Dirty Girls Social Club:

Meet the Dirty Girls – Lauren, Sara, Amber, Elizabeth, Rebecca, and Usnavys – six friends whose mutual support and (mostly) admiration society sorts out and celebrates the complications and triumphs in each other’s lives. No matter what happens to each of them (and a lot does), the Girls dish, dine, and compare notes on the bumpy course of life and love. There’s always a lot of catching up to do.

Book Review: The Female Persuasion

the female persuasionThe Female Persuasion
by Meg Wolitzer
Contemporary Fiction
454 pages
Published April 2018

So this book came to my attention through an ad on Facebook for Barnes & Noble’s first official book club meeting. I tossed around the idea of going – I haven’t had good experiences with book clubs (nor bad ones, just – ambivalent experiences) – but we wound up at a Barnes & Noble on Sunday, because we were bored, so I decided to snag the book and read it. And then I went to Book Club on Wednesday! We had a small turnout at my Barnes & Noble – only four of us, including the employee leading the discussion. But after seeing a couple photos of larger turnouts, I’m glad for it – I wasn’t afraid to speak up in the small group. I’m a pretty shy introvert, a bigger group would have led to me being pretty quiet.

I feel like I was more intrigued by our book club members than the book! S., who led the group, was a natural at it, and really got us talking. I.R. opened the meeting with “I want you guys to change my mind about this book” but wouldn’t tell us her original opinion of it! And T, who was the oldest of us, brought a completely different viewpoint to the discussion, which was invaluable. (I’m pretty sure IR and S, like me, are millennials.) At the end of the discussion, T revealed she has a Ph.D. in Sociology, specialized in Gender and Sexuality, and she’s writing a book! We all agreed we wish the Book Club was monthly instead of quarterly, so S. is going to talk to her bosses and see if we can’t do a monthly book club at our location, which would be AWESOME. She also said Barnes & Noble was hiring and encouraged us to apply, and – not gonna lie – that was tempting. It’s a bus ride and a short walk away, though, and while my health and energy levels are improving drastically, I’m not sure they’re quite up to holding down a job yet. Not and get anything done around the house.

Anyway. On to the book! The Female Persuasion was billed as a feminist novel, and in some ways it is, but we all agreed it’s not REALLY about feminism. The main character, Greer, works for a feminist foundation, but you could have changed what the foundation’s purpose was, or made her work for a corporation, and the essence of the book would have been exactly the same. It was only tangentially about feminism. It was about women supporting each other, though, and the mentor relationship between an older woman and a younger woman, so in some ways, yes. If I was asked to make a list of books about feminism, though, it certainly wouldn’t make the cut.

All of the characters have some major flaws. Greer is selfish, and doesn’t understand when things don’t go according to plan. Cory’s life gets entirely derailed by a tragedy he couldn’t prevent, but in some ways he lets the derailment happen. If he’d really wanted what he said he wanted (and perhaps he didn’t) he could have fixed his trajectory. Zee is a little brash and headstrong, but the most likable character in the book. Faith – oh, Faith. Faith is the older feminist mentor who turns out to be far more jaded than expected.

I have lots of conflicts about Faith. She is one of those feminists who doesn’t seem to care for individual women – she can’t even remember most of the women who credit her with changing their lives – but she keeps her eyes on the big picture. And as I brought up in book club, the movement does need people who see the big picture. Those people are important – but they still need certain principles that I think Faith lacks.

IR mentioned that Cory was a good foil to all the female characters in the book, and he needed his flaws, because otherwise he would be the perfect feminist boyfriend. And no one is perfect.

We were all a little disappointed with the ending; it felt like Wolitzer skipped a whole section of the story. How did Greer get from point A to point B? (Well, really, it’s more like the book covers Points A, B, C, and E. And skips D.)

I think one of my favorite quotes from the book (I misattributed it to Faith at the book club, it turns out it came from Greer) was the one about being given permission:

“I think that’s what the people who change our lives always do. They give us permission to be the person we secretly really long to be but maybe don’t feel we’re allowed to be. Many of you here in this room…..had someone like that, didn’t you? Someone who gave you permission. Someone who saw you and heard you. Heard your voice.”

I think that really sums up mentorship, in some ways. Women are often still socialized to not trust their own instincts, to lean on outside opinions for validation. (I know I was.) To be given permission and encouragement to trust yourself can be a life-changing event.

I really enjoyed this book. I saw bits of myself in all four characters – Faith’s practicality, Greer’s impressionability, Zee’s idealism, and even a little of Cory’s foggy despair and lack of ambition. I wouldn’t call it a feminist classic. But it was a good book.

From the cover of The Female Persuasion

Sometimes the person you admire most recognizes something unusual in you and draws it out, opening a door to a bigger, electrifying world.

Greer Kadetsky is a college freshman when she meets the woman who will change her life. Faith Frank, dazzlingly persuasive and elegant at sixty-three, has been a pillar of the women’s movement for decades, a figure who inspires others. Hearing Faith speak for the first time, in a crowded campus chapel, Greer feels her inner world light up. She and Cory, her high school boyfriend, have both been hardworking and ambitious, jokingly referred to as “twin rocket ships,” headed up and up and up. Yet for so long Greer has been full of longing, in search of a purpose she can’t quite name. And then, astonishingly, Faith invites her to make something out of her new sense of awakening. Over time, Faith leads Greer along the most exciting and rewarding path of her life, as it winds toward and away from her meant-to-be love story with Cory, and the future she’d always imagined. As Cory’s path, too, is altered in ways that feel beyond his control, both of them are asked to reckon with what they really want. What does it mean to be powerful? How do people measure their impact upon the world, and upon one another? Does all of this look different for men than it does for women?

With humor, wisdom, and profound intelligence, Meg Wolitzer weaves insights about power and influence, ego and loyalty, womanhood and ambition into a moving story that looks at the romantic ideals we pursue deep into adulthood: ideals relating not just to whom we want to be with, but who we want to be.