Thursday, June 28, 2018

Book Review: "The Book of Essie" by Meghan MacLean Weir

Praise the lord!!

How quick we are to judge people, even if (or especially) when we don't know them. This is even more the case where celebrities are concerned—we think we know the people we see on television or read about in magazines, yet quite often they're far more complex, and their lives are more complicated than we could ever imagine.

Esther "Essie" Hicks has spent nearly every minute of her life in the public eye. Her family has been a reality show staple with Six for Hicks long before her birth. The world has been both fascinated and repelled by her mega-church preacher father, her iron-willed mother who pulls all of the strings, and her siblings, as they've grown into adulthood and lives of faith and service all their own.

"Our family rejected materialism and popular culture and yet we also produced it. The show...paid for the SUVs Mother and Daddy drove, the lake house, the 'spiritual retreat' that was actually a villa in Saint John. It paid for the car seat I rode home in from the hospital, the muslin blankets I was swaddled in when I slept. It paid for my first backpack when it came time for me to go to school, Mother having by then completely abandoned giving lessons in the living room, not just because her time and energy were better spent promoting our brand but also because marketing said that what our audience wanted at that point was a character who was 'normal.'"

When Essie's mother Celia discovers she is pregnant, she and the show's producers must decide what to do. Do they spirit Essie out of the country for an abortion? Do they hide Essie away and then pretend that Celia has given birth to a miracle baby so late in life? Or better yet, do they marry her off, thus reaping the incredible publicity which could accompany a whirlwind romance and storybook wedding?

Celia doesn't realize that Essie is manipulating the situation, pairing herself off with a fellow classmate, Roarke Richards, despite the two of them never having spoken to one another. Roarke has his own secrets, but he is willing to help Essie sell their love story to the world. But once he finds himself part of the story, he realizes that there is far more to Essie than he ever believed, and she is not the judgmental, flighty sycophant he imagined she was.

With the help of reporter Liberty Bell, once immersed in her own media spotlight in the world of ultra-conservative religion, Essie hopes to make her true story known once and for all. But in the meantime, she wants to know why her older sister left home a few years ago, never to return, and wonders whether she'll be willing to help her. However, Essie and Roarke have to be willing to pay a tremendously high price if they share the truth with the world. Are they?

A meditation on the cult of celebrity and the hypocrisies they bring along, The Book of Essie was pretty fantastic. I was hooked from start to finish, even though I had a feeling how much of the plot might unfold. We've seen people like these characters in the media, or perhaps we even know people in similar situations without the glare of the public eye, and yet the story was utterly fascinating.

Certainly a story like this favors one "side" over another, but I liked the way that Meghan MacLean Weir didn't quite make Essie's family and others to be one-dimensional religious zealots. She certainly captured the fervor that conservative celebrities engender, and the issues they use to generate passion among their believers, but she didn't mock everyone with strong religious beliefs. She's a really talented storyteller, and she made you root for Essie and Roarke (and Liberty, too, to some extent).

In a world where everyone is just one or two viral videos away from temporary fame, The Book of Essie is a compelling, well-told look at how fame can be both a positive tool and a dangerous weapon, because of the way it can convince you that your version of reality is the right one. If you've ever wondered how a religious family might handle a scandal or two, this one's for you.

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