Monday, January 11, 2016

Book Review: Eating the Cheshire Cat

(At Blogjob this one was tagged with comic novelscompetitive parenting among yuppies,cruel sorority initiations,Gone with the Windprivate lives of Southern Ladies,Southern Gothic fiction,Stephen King’s Carrie.)

A Fair Trade Book
Title: Eating the Cheshire Cat
Author: Helen Ellis
(And she even finds time to Twitter...occasionally.)
Date: 2000
Publisher: Scribner / Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 0-684-86440-1 (hardcover), 0-684-86441-X (paperback)
Length: 288 pages
Quote: "'Be a good girl,' Mrs. Summers said as she picked up the ax. She lifted it, blade backwards...On the ride home from the hospital, Sarina thought It wasn't that bad. The last thing she remembered was her mother bringing the ax down and the crack of the first of her two fingers breaking."
Because Sarina, whom we meet in the hospital in chapter one, is going to be a perfect Southern Belle, come flood come fire. If the doctor doesn't think her hereditary crooked fingers need surgical fixing, Sarina's loving Mom will fix those fingers so that they get surgical fixing, anyway. Sarina is going to win every prize, every award, every beauty contest.
She will do this, of course, at the expense of her best friend Nicole and her worst friend Bitty Jack....and for the next 268 pages we'll see exactly what Sarina's successes have cost these other girls, all their lives, and how they get revenge.
This novel is a parody, but only barely one, of the way yuppie parents push to have the most "excellent," competitive children in their crowds. It's mean, it's Gothic, it's full of violence and gross-outs, and it's funny. One reviewer described Sarina as "a cross between Scarlett O'Haraand Carrie," but read it and see which of the girls reminds you more of Carrie in the end.
Perhaps it's especially funny if your position in Southern small-town society was "poor relation" all the way, like Bitty's...Well, good gracious, I mean I learned that the key to competitive success was to specialize. Bag something academic and drawl sweetly that it's so nice that Jennifer won another beauty contest, and the "What a pity that's all the poor thing ever wins" will be understood. There's no need to waste even a moment of teen angst on envy, an unpleasant feeling that does ugly things to the face. In real life, if academic competitions are your niche, you just cheerfully accept a scholarship, go to college--preferably directly out of grade eleven--and let a curriculum vitae full of pretty-face jobs speak for itself. You learn to enjoy even telling people that back home masses of other girls were considered much prettier than you were. After all, they say either "Wow" or "You look good to me," even if they do notice your teeth.
Not, of course, that this enjoyment is diminished if you go home, meet one of those girls working in a fairly shabby restaurant, and don't recognize her because she's gained weight and lost teeth. And yet, if that had to happen to one of the cheerleaders in my high school class, I was also glad it was the one who'd gone to a different elementary school and not been even a worst friend. In real life, the kind of relationship the girls have in Eating the Cheshire Cat isn't really friendship, but if it's not pushed to parodic extremes it does breed a limited degree of loyalty: you're not exactly strangers, and you don't really hate each other.
In Eating the Cheshire Cat it is, of course, pushed to parodic extremes, with a false accusation of child abuse, a carnival sideshow job, a lesbian crush, cheerleading, football, and sorority initiations...
"[E]ach pledge was given a goldfish. 'If it dies,' Sarina told Nicole, 'you don't get in.'...After Homecoming...Sarina stood in front of Nicole and held out Jeepers Peepers [Nicole's fish]...She clenched her teeth so hard the bleach job showed...In the moments before she opened her mouth, Nicole thought of what it meant to be a Tri Delt."
This is not, by any stretch, a nice story, but in its gross-out way it's very, very funny.
As regular readers know, Fair Trade Books are recent books by living authors, widely available secondhand, which I resell secondhand at prices that allow a 10% payment to the author or a charity of his or her choice. It works like this: you send $5 per copy + $5 per package + $1 per online payment to either of the addresses at the bottom of the screen (postal orders to the P.O. box, or use Paypal and tell my online Message Squirrel why, or if you don't have a Paypal account you could even send Saloli an Amazon gift card); I send $1 to Ellis or her charity. You may add other books, like The Turning , to the package, as many as fit, and pay only $5 for the package, and if the authors of those other books are alive I'll send $1 to each one.