Friday, May 15, 2015

You think your mom was a monster? Get a load of this one!

Photo of Shanna Mahin by Betsy and Jeff McCue

Think “Mommy Dearest” meets “The Devil Wears Prada.” Shanna Mahin’s debut novel, Oh! You Pretty Things, is deliciously and entertainingly malevolent.

It’s the perfect book for a grey, rainy day. Stay in your jammies (preferably the ones with the feet), grab as much junk food as you can find in the house, pull the covers up and enjoy. It’s an excellent antidote to an overload of serious, grim, self-consciously Literary (with a capital ‘L”) books.

First: the Mom.

Jess Dunne is third-generation Hollywood (just like the author), mostly raised by her grandmother. She is the daughter of Donna, a failed child actress, who bounces back into her life between affairs, mostly to
criticize and express disappointment in her. (Her father is nowhere to be seen. Donna refers to him only as “the sperm donor.”)

Donna is determined that Jess will be the child star she never was and forces her to go to auditions and “meets” and then becomes livid when Jess is, predictably, unsuccessful.

When Jess is only fourteen, her mother sends her off to pose for a famous photographer who drugs and rapes her. But, the real damage, Jess says, came when she told her mother what had happened.

“What did she say?”
“She said that the Chinese word for ‘crisis’ is the same as the one for opportunity.’
Eva’s lips narrow.
‘She said, ‘What’s behind door number two for a girl like you?’”
I lie back on the bed and look at Eva’s beamed ceiling.
“She said, ‘One day, you’ll thank me.’”

It is only much later in the book that a doctor asks Jess if she’s ever been pregnant and she says yes, when she was fifteen.

After years of estrangement, Mom descends, uninvited, on Jess’s tiny apartment, disrupting her life, manipulating her friends, using Jess’ connections as references for herself, without permission. It turns out that she is dying. At the end, Jess sits by her hospital bed:

In the afternoon, Donna suddenly snaps into lucidity.
“Jess?” she says, eyes still closed, her voice a raspy whisper.
She gropes blindly for my hand, and I touch her fingertips with mine. Here it is. Here is our big, emotional come-to-Jesus moment.
“I’m right here,” I say.
“I need something.” Her voice fades. “I need…”
“You can tell me,” I say.
“I need a better room,” she says. “They’ve got me in fucking steerage.”

And these are the last words she ever says to her daughter.

But, as much as Mom feels entitled to behave just as she likes, she is a rank amateur compared to “the talent”  the actors, musicians, directors and others on or near the “A List.”

When we meet Jess, she is being pushed out of her day shift as a barrista because she is a size 8 (whereas the minimum acceptable size is 2) and too old (almost 30). The cool-looking youngster replacing her helps her get his old job as personal assistant to an Oscar-, Grammy- and Emmy-winning composer, Tyler Montaigne. Tyler tells her he is easy to deal with. (This, she says, is like a normal person saying the check is in the mail.)

The author was herself once a personal assistant to an unnamed celebrity and that experience has provided fodder for the novel:

What an education Jess gets! And what a lot Ms. Mahin must have been through to have accumulated so many wickedly accurate observations! Tyler’s coffee needs sound trivial but they’re a tipoff to where this whole boss-slave relationship is going to go. His picture-perfect kitchen has a wildly expensive coffee machine. Tyler doesn’t know how to use it, so he refuses to believe that Jess does. Instead Mr. Easy sends her to Starbucks and gets ever angrier if there’s a drop of milk in his foam. The bad-boss routine may be commonplace, but it doesn’t seem old here. (Janet Maslin, The New York Times, 5/6/15)

Jess leaves Tyler to work for Eva Carlton, a star, whose demands are selfishly grotesque. She thinks nothing of calling at 3 a.m. and demanding that Jess immediately go out on errands. She alternates between pretending that Jess is her friend and humiliating her in front of others.

The saving grace for Jess is her one true female friendship. Jess and her best friend, Megan, are deeply connected, accept and understand each other just as they are, and are always there to see each other through.

In her Acknowledgments, Shanna Mahin says:

I’m a late bloomer. If late blooming was a booth at a carnival, I would totally win one of those giant stuffed pandas they keep all the way at the top. I don’t have an MFA; I didn’t study writing in college. In fact, I didn’t go to college at all. Or high school, for that matter, at least not past the first half of the tenth grade. But books, books! Books have been a constant – often the only constant – in my life from the moment I learned to read, some (mumble) forty years ago. Books saved my life and gave me a soft place to fall in a childhood with some really hard edges.

Oh! You Pretty Things is Shanna Mahin’s debut novel. She has held fellowships at the MacDowell Colony, the Norman Mailer Writers Colony, and PEN Center USA Emerging Voices.

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