I’m a sucker for books featuring single women and happy endings, but all too often, chick-lit make me want to gouge my eyes out rather than read another page. Top of my complaints: the genre’s view of beauty as synonymous with worth. Chick-lit usually demands that all readers willfully ignore the Colossal Coincidence in the room–that the heroines are always as gorgeous as they are good (a few extra Bridget Jones-y pounds notwithstanding). While some books do portray a hero who’s attracted to the protagonist’s courage or wit or intelligence or sterling moral character, let’s face it–the Mensa IQ and sunshine personality wouldn’t matter if the heroine wasn’t such a hottie. Beauty may not be sufficient, but it’s always necessary for the protagonist to find happiness in these books, much as the genre’s writers try to hide the same (mostly by wrapping the heroine’s looks in a clamshell package of modesty and morality).
Waking Beauty by Toronto writer Elyse Friedman not only acknowledges the beauty equals worthiness stereotype, but uses it as pivot point for her novel. The premise is simple. Twenty-two-year-old Allison Penny, stuck in a dead-end job, with few prospects for love, affection or lust, wakes up one morning to find she’s beautiful (by the standards of the Western world, that is). Overnight, she sheds “dead-mouse hair”, “golf ball skin”, “pellet eyes”, “potato nose” and about sixty extra pounds to emerge a five-nine, golden-skinned, blue-eyed, Nordic-blond-haired, long-legged goddess. Just. Like. That.
There’s no attempt to explain/justify this metamorphosis; Allison simply wakes up changed—a fait accompli that might frustrate some readers. But Waking Beauty isn’t about how Allison becomes beautiful, but how beauty becomes Allison, and we soon move from why? to what next? without getting caught up in the mechanics of the transformation.
Initially, Allison wonders what function her new-found beauty serves. “Why had this happened to me? What was the purpose? Was my transformation part of a larger scheme? Did I have some sort of beauty duty to perform? And if so, what would it be? Posing naked for a PETA billboard? Administering blowjobs to ugly outcasts?”
Allison, however, quickly learns that soul-searching isn’t necessary when she’s gorgeous. Life is suddenly easy; she can jettison her janitor’s job for the megabuck modeling career several agencies beg her to undertake. And her path is littered with rich, powerful men all too willing to help her find fame and fortune. Friedman pulls no punches– we live in a society where men are primarily judged by their success and women by their looks, and the world is nice to Allison solely because she is beautiful. The old Allison’s generosity and intelligence were never appreciated (most people didn’t stay around long enough), but pretty Allison is awash in favors. Service staff are polite, taxis simply materialize, and people smile rather than disapprove when she eats ice-cream for breakfast.
And it’s not just straight men. Allison’s judgmental, mean-spirited mother and her nasty room-mate both turn mellow when faced with the new Allison. Beauty bestows power, and comes with few demands—at most, the anti-consumerist Allison now feels obligated to move from a regimen of Ivory soap and Nivea cream to a four-step skin maintenance system, wondering if “anatomy is destiny, was I destined to become a vapid shopaholic supermodel?”
Every page of the novel affirms that life is indeed unfair; those who chance to satisfy the beauty standards of their generation have it much easier than other humans. Depressing for us readers who forlornly believe that what’s inside is more important than the outside. But beauty finally throws up a complication in the shape of the Man, who, strangely enough, seems to prefer the old Allison to the new shiny version. But Friedman does not hinge Allison’s understanding of her true priorities upon upon her love-life; romance is not an end in itself for this heroine.
Friedman’s sly, quirky wit permeates to the very marrow of the book; no weaseling out into a moral ending for this fierce dark tale that demands the reader’s respect. Part fantasy, part social satire, a little bit chick-lit, and all bleakly funny, this novel makes us laugh even as we squirm to consider our own biases; just how do we pander to the freak of nature that is beauty? I picked up this slim pink-and-white paperback assuming it’d make a quick trip from bedside table to library donation box. Seldom has a book of ideas sported such a misleading guise; damn you Friedman, for making me think!