In Which I Attempt to Discuss the Importance of Girl Before a Mirror by Liza Palmer...

In Which I Attempt to Discuss the Importance of Girl Before a Mirror by Liza Palmer...

We are women. And we can be the person we want to be, not the version you wish we were.

You know how some things--whether they're books, movies, television show or whatever--that just work their way into your heart and don't let go? The things that become a part of you? That's the way I feel about Liza Palmer's books--every single one of them, each in a special way.

I loved Nowhere But Home because it filled that omnipresent FNL-shaped hole in my heart; More Like Her for its perfect final scene; A Field Guide to Burying Your Parents for its clear-eyed depiction of family; Seeing Me Naked is just a damn good book; and Conversations with a Fat Girl is laugh out loud hilarious.  

Her latest, Girl Before a Mirror, just might edge out the rest as my favorite. 

What do I want? I want to be happy and not feel guilty about it. I want to be curious without being called indulgent. I want to be accepted regardless of what I look like, what I do for a living, my marital status, whether I have kids, or whether you think I’m nice enough, hospitable enough, or humble enough to measure up to your impossible standards. I want purpose. I want contentment. I want to be loved and give love unreservedly in return. I want to be seen. I want to matter. I want freedom.

Advertising executive Anna has just turned 40, is recently divorced, her old friends have become fading away and her career aspirations mean she has to land a big new client for her agency. While preparing her strategy, she discovers the book Be the Heroine, Find Your Hero, and is inspired to create a campaign to revitalize her dream client's stale body wash brand by signing the winner of the Romance Cover Model of the Year competition as her campaign's spokesman. 

Somewhere along the line—probably in the septic tank that was my adolescence—I stopped believing I was the hero of my own story. Or that my story was worthy of a hero at all. I settled because that’s all I thought I deserved.

Anna and her new young (and very pretty) colleague Sasha head off to Arizona to make it happen. Except, participating in the romance novel reader convention forces Anna to confront her perceptions and the impact of those biases on her life and career. 

“For me, it was easier experiencing pleasure secondhand,” I say.

“How do you mean?” Helen asks.

“I wanted people to know I was reading the right books and listening to the right music . . . that I was up on what was being talked about by the right people. That brought me pleasure.” Silence. A beat. “That I was better than the unwashed masses.”

When I started writing about Girl Before a Mirror--back in September!--I went through my highlights and my final wordcount on passages I'd highlighted on my Kindle was over 3,000--that's how much of this book just hit me right in the brain-heart-gut convergence. There are so many themes that will resonated with me, a big one of which was the cultural expectation that women feel ashamed about things they enjoy. 

As the bar begins to fill up, I catch myself hiding the cover of Helen’s book. Old habits. The book makes women feel empowered, sexy, and cherished, and challenges them to be the heroine of their own stories, and I can’t even be seen in public with it?

I've experienced this so much, both on a personal level when an adult student of mine says that the books I write about on this blog "don't count" (true story) to the frequency with which media outlets shit on books such as genre romance and young adult fiction. Hell, just a few weeks ago, Book Riot published their 800th (approximately) post peppered with snide remarks about romance novels and their "girly" readers. (Did you know there's exactly one romance novel that's "decently" written?) Oh, and then a self-described feminist website crapped all over romance readers just this week

Or on a bigger level, how often do articles about Taylor Swift start out with a brush off about her young teenage fans in an attempt to diminish her popularity? Or do we see yet another column shocked and amazed that women are an economic force? 

That’s what we do in advertising. We’re the frenemy who makes you feel just bad enough that you’ll reach for our product to fix you. Sure, you’re passable, but with this? You could be perfect. For now. And this tactic works like a charm because it mirrors how we women communicate with the people we call friends.

Like most of us, Anna has internalized this diminishment, which is particularly sharp because of her career path in advertising. As anyone who's worked in marketing-related fields, there are certain niches that are considered to be the signal of real accomplishment: cars, politics, sneakers, etcetera.

Even in the work I do--digital communications--I've experienced this. Folks are confused that I primarily--by choice--work with small, woman-owned businesses, with people like me. I've had opportunities to work with "bigger" and "more important" clients, but the folks I work with feel "right" to me. For me, it's where the most interesting work is found and the opportunity to be part of helping others create a space for themselves matters.

The music is loud and right out of every bad wedding reception. The seven male contestants move and mingle throughout the party, taking pictures, dancing, and vying for votes among the crush of hundreds of adoring women. I see every type of woman on the dance floor—every size, every age, every color—shaking her groove thing, if you will. There are no social strata or cliques. It’s a mosh pit of women feeling free to let off steam.

But whenever I do take on a larger, more "mainstream" (and I'll let you read into the subtext of that) client, all the sudden I receive all kinds of validation from acquaintances. It's weird, and not something that explicitly bothers me anymore, but it's remarkable how folks nearly-universally assume that it's not by choice that I work with the sort of clients I do.

All that is to say, I very closely identified with the complexities of Anna's relationship with her career on a personal level and also on a macro level with regard to how as a woman, I feel like I'm constantly defending the things I like and care about to people who don't really matter. 

I loved the subplot of Anna's meeting the dashing straight out of a romance novel Lincoln Mallory, who's just as messy as Anna once she scratches the surface. Anna's complicated love for her brother who's spiraling out of control made me straight-up teary. The evolution of Anna and Sasha's friendship and work relationship was the bomb dot com that reminded me how lucky we are when we're adults to find friends that we click with and who believe in us.

By the time Sasha and I meet for breakfast the next morning, just a few minutes past seven A.M., I’ve concocted untold thousands of narratives for how last night happened and how either a) I will continue to spiral out of control until I’ve been turned into some sex slave and only Liam Neeson’s very specific skill set can save me, b) I will be be crushed when it turns out that I am not, in fact, in a romance novel and real life doesn’t work like this, or c) Lincoln Mallory checked out this morning and I missed my chance at . . . and then my mind goes blank . . . missed my chance at whatever this is . . . was . . . I don’t know.

Literally my only complaint about Girl Before a Mirror is that Saoirse* was misspelled in my uncorrected galley. Like I said, I highlighted over 3,000 words of it on my Kindle--it's just that relevant to me. To me, Girl Before a Mirror is an important book, and I think it will be for you too. 

“Cookie-cutter. Formulaic is one of my personal favorites. Of course, when a man writes about love and relationships it’s worthy of a ticker tape parade or a Pulitzer,” Helen says, sipping her coffee. “But when we do it it’s unrealistic. Because I don’t know about you, but I know countless pretty—but don’t know it, of course—oversexed, yet virginal, college students who not only lust after their English professors but will get in line behind several other women for the honor of doing so.”

“A miserable ending with unlikable characters doesn’t make you deep,” Sasha adds, edging closer to me. Nudging me to say something. Do something. My face feels hot. I know what I have to do.

“Amen,” Helen says. “You want to truly understand a culture? Just record what they read when they think no one is looking,” Sasha says.

*My dog is named Saoirse. The other one is named Ruairi. I have a thing for Irish names that are impossible to spell or pronounce phonetically. 

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