(This post originally appeared in Persephone Magazine.)
Written as a sequel to 2012’s Spin, Catherine McKenzie’s new novella, Spun, checks in with supporting character Amber Sheppard, two years after the last book finished. It’s a story about grief, addiction, and celebrity culture, but I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as its predecessor.
Spin told the tale of Kate Sandford, sent to rehab to spy on It-Girl Amber Sheppard for a gossip rag, all while Kate comes to terms with her alcoholism. While light in tone and an easy read, I enjoyed the book for its insight into recognizing one’s flaws and how to become a more considerate human.
Spun, apart from a Kate-cameo, instead focuses on Amber’s post-rehab life. Gossip sites and paparazzi are constantly trying to catch her slipping back into drug use, and every stumble in heels is somehow “evidence” of her intoxication. She’s been successfully avoiding her enabler ex-boyfriend, Connor Parks, who has not at all learned anything from his rehab stint, and who keeps calling her just to prove that he can still make her weak. Her career isn’t going as well as it once was, and she has an ÜberPublicist strongly suggesting her every PR move. So, yes, life hasn’t shook out the way Amber thought it might.
Then, something happens with Connor that peripherally involves Amber, and now the press are even more relentless, and it’s complicating matters with her current lukewarm relationship. Amber has recently become “engaged” to Danny Garcia, an actor whose PR status is almost as calculated as hers:
After much debate, your respective publicists decide you have two weeks to date “privately.” Two weeks where you’ll tell anyone who asks that you’re “just good friends,” where you’ll never be seen arriving anywhere together. During those two weeks he’s still charming, he still makes you laugh, and when he kisses you and touches you and makes love to you, you can almost forget the LOYL.
McKenzie switches into second person in an effort for Amber to distance herself, to look at her life in a “How did I get here?” sort of way, but it doesn’t happen (that I recall) more than the one time. The “you” looks less like a stylistic choice and more like case of, “Could this have been written better?” I don’t begrudge the Love Of Your Life/LOYL abbreviation, since in some ways Spun reads like a diary entry or an airy celebrity memoir. However, the novella is often more backstory than it is plot.
It’s not that I wholly disliked Spun, but I spent most of the time reading wondering why I cared, and also wishing that we were getting a Spin/Kate story instead. Post-rehab career is an interesting concept, especially in terms of navigating celebrity culture, yet Amber spends a lot of time waiting for someone to point her in the right direction, which does not make for an interesting protagonist. I understand that someone who feels helpless would do so, from a real-life standpoint, but I expected more from a book — even if it is only around 80 pages.
McKenzie does make good use of incorporating scripts, interview clippings and text messages into the story — a trick that a lot of modern writers are still struggling with. One can hardly write about an actress in L.A. without these things, and their appearances do not feel jarring. There are also some funny bits of dialogue and, again, touching insight into Amber getting her life together.
Still, if Spun needed to be written, it needed more than backstory with a side of soapy dramz. Amber could have her own full length book, and this one doesn’t quite meet the mark. It feels rushed — dashed off, even — and ill-prepared for prime time. Maybe it’s enough for some readers, but despite its bright spots, it wasn’t enough for me.
Full Disclosure: McKenzie’s assistant provided me with this book. I thank both of them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.