Linking up with Jessica at Housewifespice!
Full Disclosure: I first learned of this novel when it won the PEN New England Susan p. Bloom Discovery Award; the author was an intern for a former roommate of mine; and I believe she is possibly the wife of a former lector at my parish.
Chloe Baker, 17, is your average high schooler—at least, that’s what she presents herself to be. But in reality, Chloe is Bonnie™ Baker, one of the eldest daughters of the family that charmed America for 13 seasons as they grew to have 13 kids. Once production shut down after the divorce, Bonnie™’s suicide attempt, the family relocated across the country; mom married the house contractor, and Bonnie and her mix of biological and adopted siblings get four years of anonymity, and Bonnie™ a new, untrademarked name. The perfect, untelevised life Chloe builds for herself comes crashing down when Mom and Stepdad decide to start a new batch of seasons (primarily to earn more money), against the two eldest kids’ wishes.
Over the couple of years it’s been since hearing the first ten pages at the PEN Award Ceremony, I’ve been hooked by Ms. Demeterios’s story. And now that the whole book is available; it’s reeled me in. The writing is taut, engaging, funny, and every now and then profound. Chloe and brother Benton™ generate immediate empathy. Chloe’s budding romance is swoon-worthy. The ending is not what you would expect but still satisfactory for the characters you like. The design and structure of the book is very clever—there are no chapters, but episodes within a “season,” as well as clippings from various media to highlight important parts.
Because the ending is not what you expect, the comeuppance you hope for for Mom and the Producer is—spoiler alert—not present. While very well drawn as the antagonist, Mom does not actually have any redemption. There are inklings that Mom might come around, but she ultimately chooses to be entrapped by this circus. Even more disappointing is Stepdad, who provides the straw that breaks Benton and Chloe’s back, and does not face the consequences. Well, having two members of your family leave is a consequence, but it is not received as such on part of the adults. And the more I think on it, Chloe’s choice is also in a way selfish—it’s not clear how what’s left in motion (possibly for a sequel?) will aid her brothers and sisters or rectify the damaged relationship with her Mom.
Catholic Critique: I cannot recommend Catholic parents, relatives, or guardians buy this for the teens in their lives. While the Catholic faith is not really present, aside from a quick line from Chloe that she would like confession, there is a glaring omission of how faith can positively inform lives. In fact, the only treatment of faith is to portray a conservative evangelical-sounding denomination in a poor light (fundamentalist parents want to send their gay son to conversion camp).
The matter of Mom’s choices with regard to her family planning are also not scrutinized: Benton™ and twin Lexie™ are from a surrogate; the other 9 kids are adopted from various countries. Unfortunately, you begin to wonder what ultimately drives Mom—genuine call to this kind of generosity or selfish fulfillment of a cutesy wish (a baker’s dozen of kids!). And aside from the occasional moments of Chloe defending her family and valuing her brothers and sisters, you don’t really get a healthy portrayal of big families. For some Catholics, this is a big deal. Many families with many kids are happy and self-sustaining without the financial aid of a destructive reality show following them around.
Now, if an older teen or young adult is a free range reader and picks this book up, then I would say, there are a couple things to remember:
– Morality is meant to be in totality. Just because a character holds some values does not mean a reader should excuse the flaunting of others, the neutralizing of some, and the celebrating of those our faith guides us away from.
– Sympathy can be a tool of manipulation. Sometimes writers, musicians, and artists can draw readers away from their own notions by creating feelings of empathy and sympathy. In some instances, this can be a good thing, as readers will learn to recognize dignity for all types of people. But when your favorite character stars championing something you know is objectively wrong—either you might be swayed into rejecting your point of view or put down as being in the “wrong” because you don’t celebrate the same cause.
Bottom line: Just like a high quality reality TV show—engaging storyline with a sympathetic character dealing with selfish, destructive choices that can be good entertainment, so long as you know Truth from fiction, Light from dark, and are able to switch off if necessary.