When I first saw this book in Borders, I was intrigued by the cover and when I read about a Mormon gal on her own in the Big Apple, I was even further intrigued. Given that I just name-dropped Borders, that’ll give you an idea of how long ago it was that I picked it up. Pretty sure it was around 2010. But something made me keep it through a move from New Jersey to Mississippi, then back to New Jersey. Then to Memphis. Then BACK to New Jersey a second time. Finally, after seven years, I started reading it in December of 2017 and finished it last week.
One thing I appreciated about the format was that while each chapter was a part of a chronological progression in author Elna Baker’s life, they were also bite-sized. I could finish one chapter while waiting for an appointment, in the bathroom (it can be really hard to find books that are good for bathroom reading), or before bed.
As for the subject matter of the book, it was an interesting read for me because it was so far outside of my realm of experience. I’m a solo eclectic Pagan and the closest I’ve come to Mormon culture is seeing The Book of Mormon on tour in Memphis, knowing that some of favorite dancers/choreographers are Mormon, and when I was really young and just discovering polyamory, my then boyfriend, new girlfriend, and I came out to our best friend by saying that we were “Mormon”, referencing the church’s known stance on having multiple wives. So…not the most well-rounded understanding of the religion.
Baker’s voice drew me into her narrative and I learned a lot reading this book. Going in, I didn’t know about the “Magic Underwear” (Temple Garments, or special underwear that male and female Mormons wear as “symbolic and/or literal protection from the evils of the world”), the strong push towards marriage (specifically within the Mormon faith and in a Mormon church) and family being the ultimate goal of life, and I had no idea about the single’s dances (designed to foster the goal of marriage and family). I have had other friends who had conflict within their family because they were dating people outside their faith, but none of the actual Mormon faith. I also tend to gravitate towards friends and chosen family who are either in moderate religions, atheist/agnostic, or born-again Pagans like myself who left behind the faith of their youth and, as such, have to deal with varied levels black sheep status in their family. You could say that I’m not exactly a conformist. So this book was very interesting because Elna Baker is very dedicated to being Mormon and upholding her faith as well as she possibly can. And going to school in NYC as she’s coming of age and coming into her own definitely challenges that.
Some of the best parts, for me, were realizing that she used to be a plus-sized woman and through the course of the book lost a lot of weight. She talks honestly and hilariously about how she became a bitch after she lost weight and didn’t know until way later that how she lost so much weight successfully might’ve had something to do with prescription speed. Her observations of what the world is like as a plus-sized woman looking for love in all the right places and then what it was like after she lost weight was incredibly interesting. People treated her differently. She experienced female rivalry for a desirable guy in her local Mormon group, or ward.
I admired her spirit when faced with new adventures, from her family moving to different countries when she was younger to getting new jobs and putting herself “out there” (or saying “yes” to things, sometimes in hilariously questionable ways which lead to her inadvertently becoming a “serial convention crasher”.) Or selling high priced baby dolls to snobby, racist people. Or making out with celebrities. Or becoming a stand up comic. Or deciding to have plastic surgery to alter her body after her weight loss.
Elna Baker faced all these new adventures with an fun mixture of devout and devious, though it was a little odd and hard to believe that someone in their twenties had such a lack of skill and knowledge in something like kissing. She’s frustratingly naive in some ways, but if the reader is frustrated, it’s also because Elna herself is also personally irked by her own lack of experience and knowledge. I had to remind myself that not everyone has sex-positive and educated friends who are sex workers, consent advocates and teachers, sex educators, burlesque performers, swingers, polyamorous people, asexuals. Not everyone worked for and taught at kink conventions like I did. Also, the world and the internet was a different place ten years ago when this book was written. But I admire her strong convictions, especially her ability to also explore the world and possibly question her faith a time or two, but come back to it even stronger.
The book is also peppered with her charming, hand written lists of what she believes as she goes on this journey, the guys she’s kissed, a fun Venn diagram of how to kiss, and a chart of “Advancements in Cloning vs. Elna’s Sex Life”.
By the end, her adventures have taken her to Zambia in search of the Atheist That Got Away, which was an interesting trip. Overall, the whole book is an interesting trip through one funny, intelligent Mormon woman’s 20’s. I really enjoyed Baker’s account of her life, her experiences, and all those regional Mormon singles dances.