NOTE: This review is actually a buddy review with my former life partner slash roommate slash BFF who now lives very far away but we are still in a book club together, and I am making her write this with me so I can win at CBR BINGO because contests are fun and because PRIZES. We read this for our IRL book club last month and I am only reviewing it now.
Here’s the Amazon summary, since we didn’t do a good job explaining the premise:
“It’s lonely being a Mormon in New York City. Every year, Elna Baker attends the New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance. This year, her Queen Bee costume (which involves a funnel stinger stuck to her butt) isn’t attracting the attention she’d anticipated. So once again, Elna finds herself alone, standing at the punch bowl, stocking up on Oreos, a virgin in a room full of thirty-year-old virgins doing the Funky Chicken. But loneliness is nothing compared to what Elna feels when she loses eighty pounds, finds herself suddenly beautiful… and in love with an atheist.
Brazenly honest, The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance is Elna Baker’s hilarious and heartfelt chronicle of her attempt to find love in a city full of strangers and see if she can steer clear of temptation and just get by on God.”
ASHLEY: First of all, the title is very long, but I think I like it.
ALISON: Yes, the title is cute and funny, which I felt is probably the most I could say about the book at its best moments.
ASHLEY: OH NO. We are not mincing words. I did like this book, overall, but as we discussed when we met a couple of weeks ago, it felt super unfinished, like okay I know you haven’t watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer but there’s this quote from the last episode where Buffy says that she doesn’t feel like she’s done baking, she’s cookie dough, and that is how I feel about Elna Baker as a writer for this book. She was not done baking.
ALISON: I agree, I enjoyed reading the book, but I had to be aware to set aside any expectations that the insight would be anything more than a sheltered mid-twenty something could achieve. The hardest part for me were the cringe-y moments when I felt like “dang, she probably really regrets saying that” or just in general the moments when she was describing things in light-hearted ways that were probably enormous problems in her life (e.g., the eating disorder she normalized / made light of).
ASHLEY: Yes, especially as a writer, it made me feel awkward because she seems so sure of herself, and I feel like had she even waited six months or a year, this would have been a very different book, because she would have reached that point where you realize that you know nothing, and a lot of these essays would have had a very different perspective.
ALISON: Agreed, she was too much “in it” still. A lack of perspective is a good way to put it. She was writing it while still in the eating disorder, in the church, etc. More time and distance would have helped. On a positive note, I enjoyed reading about the concept of coming of age while trying to straddle the line between the secular and church world in NYC.
ASHLEY: Yes, let’s say some positive things! I feel like most of the time when young people write memoirs they are just writing to write something, and it feels very empty and pointless to me. This was not that; she actually had something substantial and interesting to write about. The intersection of her faith, and her desires and needs that weren’t met by that faith, made for some really intriguing situations. This is essentially a book about sex where the center is the author’s experience of not having it. But she wants to. Real bad. And all of that is compounded with her experience of being a fat person in a world designed for skinny people’s wants and desires. And she can be really funny (if a little bit off the wall at times, and insensitive).
ALISON: Yes! The sex/lack of sex. I found the story of her body and her pursuit of weight loss interesting, mainly in what she didn’t say about it. Her authorial voice was almost overly confident, so I can’t remember if she ever truly explored or described her struggles with living in a fat body in a fat-phobic culture…which is interesting since she ended up taking such a radical approach to make her body smaller. Part of that curiosity was driven by the fact that prior to reading the book, I had listened to her contribution to an episode of This American Life detailing her ambivalence about her weight loss (which she wrote much more recently about the book and had a much more nuanced perspective). When I read this book, I felt a lot of compassion towards her; I think because I remember being that age, and it feels like ALL THE LIFE IS HAPPENING, you know? And I kind of just wanted to let her perspective be what it was.
ASHLEY: I listened to that episode when it first aired, and again right after I finished the book, and it gave me more of the conclusion I wanted from this one, though it didn’t touch her ex-Mormon faith at all. But in terms of body image, it gave me more of the perspective I wanted from this book. So, final thoughts?
ALISON: Final thoughts: mostly enjoyed reading this book. People in their twenties should probably not write memoirs. Also, people who have eating disorders / body image issues should probably not read it.
ASHLEY: Oh heck no. Yeah, I can imagine a lot the stuff she talks about, since it’s so un-examined, would not be super helpful to anyone trying to regain a healthy relationship to food and their bodies. Overall, I’m really glad we read this for book club because we got a super interesting discussion out of it, probably one of our best. And if it sounds interesting to you, I would say go ahead and check it out, just know going in that it’s pretty imperfect.
CBR Bingo: Two Heads are Better Than One (Do a partner review.)