[Book review]Easily digested tales of urban womanhood lacking in meat

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[Book review]Easily digested tales of urban womanhood lacking in meat


After reading Sloane Crosley’s short author bio on the back cover of “I Was Told There’d Be Cake,” I thought I would love this collection of humorous anecdotes about young adulthood. How could I not, when her essays have run in such esteemed publications as Playboy (hey, some people do read it for the articles!) and The New York Times. Who can hate an essayist who self-deprecatingly boasts about writing “the cover story for the worst-selling issue of Maxim in that magazine’s history”?

The book opens pleasantly enough. She starts with a real kicker: “As most New Yorkers have done, I have given serious and generous thought to the state of my apartment should I get killed during the day.” As part of Crosley’s target demographic ? or perhaps just susceptible to her attractive cover ? I immediately identified with her recounting of young, female, urban professional life.

I Was Told There’d Be Cake is for the “Sex and the City” generation of women, the ones who have “blisters on [their] feet and Frederic Fekkai in [their] hair,” as Crosley describes herself once she’s truly “made it” in New York City. It’s very easily digested, like the cake mentioned in the title but unfortunately absent in the text.

But that’s this book’s problem. Crosley’s vignettes present even less insight into the lives of young women than an episode of Sex and the City ? and I actually like the TV series.

These essays are formulaic. A big, bold opening sentence heralds each piece’s narrative, there’s some poor attempts at humor, a couple of profanities and then a pithy attempt at profundity closes it out. Here’s a selection of some of her closing lines:

“And for the first time, I found God.”

“Yes. Yes, you are.”

“And then I paid for lunch.”

Even conclusions featuring more complex sentence structures fail. In these instances, Crosley tries to close with what she fancies to be a deeply thought-provoking image, but instead leaves the reading asking, “So what?” They’re just too canned.

While Crosley recounts various events of her life that she deems meaningful, she doesn’t convince readers of their impact. Admittedly, she has a real knack for penning visceral images. Of her case of preteen head lice, she writes: “I was upset. I felt lost. I felt itchy. … My mother, high on Nix fumes and annoyed from triple washing all my sheets, pulled my Mary costume out of my camp regulation duffel bag and examined it carefully.”

But why was this itchy affliction from summer camp significant to an adolescent Sloane? Her other essays raise similar questions. How does her decision to make a cookie doppelganger of her boss affect the greater scheme of her life? Why is it important to tell the reader about a bout of yuppie hypochondria? Most importantly, what is the point of this whole book? Crosley doesn’t answer these questions, and as a reader flips on, she is bound to realize that these essays are little more than a masturbatory writing exercise.

Personal essays and memoirs, while self-absorbed without fail, can be deeply enriching to a reader, especially when they’re laugh-out-loud funny. But unlike master essayist David Sedaris, whom fellow writer Jonathan Lethem criminally compares Crosley to in a blurb on the book’s cover, this young female author writes pieces that are as literary as a reasonably good college essay.

I’m sure she’s smart, as she wrote her senior thesis on Virginia Woolf and can allude to various eras of pop culture without skipping a beat. But the majority of these essays are so short and shallow, they come across as mere silly snippets of burgeoning womanhood.

Tales of growing up as told in humor pieces can be utterly hilarious. I couldn’t help but let out a hearty chuckle while reading “Me Talk Pretty One Day” when a young Sedaris coated his head with shoe polish, only to have it sweat off. I laughed so hard I held up the security line at Dulles International Airport while I read of how Alexander Portnoy bristled at his mother’s inquiries about the consistency of his “poopie” in Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint.” I don’t think I even cracked a smile over any of Crosley’s flat attempts at humor.

Instead, when I finished the last one-liner ending of I Was Told There’d Be Cake (“I picked up the phone and ordered in sushi.”) I felt the title of this book precisely verbalized the unfulfilled feeling of my sunken expectations.

And then I found $5.

I Was Told There’d Be Cake

Author: Sloane Crosley
Genre: Humor essays
Publisher: Riverhead Books, Penguin USA

By Hannah Bae Contributing Writer [hannahbae@gmail.com]
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