The Book of Essie
By Meghan Maclean Weir. (Alfred A. Knopf, 336 pages, $25.95.)
At 17, Essie Hicks has lived her whole life on camera, via her family’s reality TV show “Six for Hicks.” Well, not her whole life, because Essie has an explosive secret. She’s pregnant.
If she were a Kardashian, that might not be a problem, but the Hicks family has built their celebrity on their strict religious beliefs. Big problem.
“The Book of Essie” chronicles the pivotal months during which Essie’s family works out how to deal with her pregnancy without jeopardizing their hit show and the lavish lifestyle it funds.
“It paid for the car seat I rode home in from the hospital. … It paid for my first backpack when it came time for me to go to school,” Essie recalls. “The show paid for everything. And now it would pay for a solution to my ‘problem.’ ”
Essie finds herself given a rare chance to decide her fate — but at what cost?
Debut novelist Meghan Maclean Weir delivers a page-turning tale informed by her background as a preacher’s daughter. She divides the story among three young narrators: Essie, her potential groom, and a journalist covering the show. It’s a good device, but Weir struggles to create three distinct voices. Readers also may flinch at her occasional swipes at evangelical churches and the fictional show’s resemblance to the real-life “19 Kids and Counting.”
Even so, the story’s fast pace and plot twists will hold readers until Essie’s episode comes to its dramatic end.
Not that Bad: Dispatches From Rape Culture
Edited by Roxane Gay. (Harper, 350 pages, $16.99.)
Seeing writer/commentator Roxane Gay’s name on the spine made this book jump into my hands. Gay’s got no time for wimpy words and soggy sentiment. In her own work, she slices deep to the core of difficult topics — rape, gender, weight.
And so do the essay writers of the Gay-edited “Not That Bad: Dispatches From Rape Culture.”
Gay opens the collection with her own story: “When I was twelve years old, I was gang-raped in the woods behind my neighborhood by a group of boys with the dangerous intentions of bad men.”
She told that story in the fabulous “Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body” published last year. With this collection Gay yields to the selected writers who share the evolution of their thinking about their experiences.
There is Lynn Melnick’s “The Luckiest MILF in Brooklyn,” in which the mom writes about street harassment so unsettling that she avoided, among other places, the coffee shop and the pizza parlor near her home because she couldn’t go there without feeling “exposed, harassed or creeped on.”
She describes the anger and humiliation of a man yelling crude sexual comments out a car window as she stood on the corner with her 4-year-old daughter. “Once or twice in my life, I swear to you, I have done things other than be a body available for men to enjoy or reject,” she wrote.
From street scenes to a daughter’s rape by her father, the writers describe the aftermath of verbal and physical attacks. Together these women’s stories make up more than the sum of their unsettling parts.
The title comes from something at least one of the victims was told: that her rape was “not that bad” because, after all, she survived. Fresh from reading this compelling collection, I would argue that’s the diminution women have received over and over in all sorts of ways.