So much of the trade-sized books marketed towards us women deal with fellow women doing what I call “playing the FU Card.” Playing the FU card describes the moment when a woman seizes her own life with 9 fingers, lifting that all important middle finger on her dominant hand to whatever, or whomever, has been telling her she ought to do otherwise than embrace her own (dare I say it) potential. Commence sucking of marrow, and possibly other items depending on the book, and living of life.
Seeing Me Naked is about playing the FU Card. Elisabeth Page is the daughter of a famous 60’s rebel novelist. Her mother is an effortlessly graceful WASPy hostess with kindness and best intentions everywhere, particularly when smoothing over the massive divots left by her husband in the pristine lawn of her life. Elisabeth’s brother has just published his own novel, and is trying to move out from under the shadow of his father’s success to establish his own. Elisabeth herself has chosen something far, far from writing as her own career: she’s a pastry chef. She’s landed a job at a marvelous restaurant in LA, working under a typically outlandish and demanding crazy ass of a head chef, and her world is a cycle of hot coffee, her Blackberry, cooking, dealing with her quietly dedicated assistant Samuel, and her noxiously malignant backstabbing assistant Julie. In between the daily cycles of her life, every now and again she has to make an appearance at home, which is, of course, ripe with high peaks of drama.
There are few words that make me sigh in happiness like the word “pastry.” So when I read the synopsis and was asked to review this book, I was all up in that pastry idea. While reading this book, I nearly gave up just past the halfway mark, because while I was entirely enamored of some of the characters, like Elisabeth’s brother Rascal, and her mother, Ballard Foster, who has the Best WASP Name Ever, and who has lovely core of strength that shows up when its needed, still wrapped in a white linen and navy blue napkin that’s perfectly folded, there was one problem.
Well, with Elisabeth, there were three problems:
1. I wanted to smack a bitch.
2. The book is told in first person.
3. Go To #1.
At several points, I started talking back to Elisabeth’s narration. “Bitch, you did not just do that.” “Dear Lord, woman, why are you such an asshole? No wait, I know why. Maybe you could both recognize that your family is 75% asshole AND then choose to NOT be an asshole? No?” “Oh, Bitch, you did not just do that.” It is alarmingly frustrating to read about someone who wants to change, says she should, and then doesn’t while commenting in that moment all the ways in which she should change, just act differently this one time.
Elisabeth fully recognizes that her family is profoundly dysfunctional, and how her role in life as a pastry chef is to cook the happiness for each of her customers and “envelop” them in it, and she recognizes that she, by virtue of being raised by a classy mother and a brash father, has a good bit of the Well Bred Asshole in her.
Problem is, she lets herself be an asshole way, way too long. Elisabeth’s story begins with an almost systematic description of all the ways in which her life is stagnant and her daily routine is largely determined by everyone around her. She has a journalist pseudo boyfriend cum fuckbuddy, Will, who stops in to stop in when he and Elisabeth find themselves in the same place. Will is a curious character; Palmer does a deft job of creating his vulnerabilities while still allowing him to demonstrate what a selfish buttmonkey he is as well. In the beginning, Elisabeth and Will are pretty much perfect for each other.
Then shit changes, as shit is wont to do. Elisabeth has an opportunity land in her lap that sends her career into a direction that her father would and does violently protest: television. (It’s evil, you know. Four out of five dentists don’t let their kids watch tv. Or eat pastry.) She watches her brother struggle to play his own FU Card with their mercurial egomaniac of a father. Both the Page children have opportunities come to them purely based on their father’s fame. But what both characters learn is that while the opportunity might have shown up for that reason, their independent and individual success is largely due to their own brilliance.
And that brilliance, on Elisabeth’s part, leads her to meet Daniel Sullivan, a very nice midwestern boy who coaches basketball at UCLA, who bids on a cooking lesson with Elisabeth as part of her mother’s latest charity event – a scene that’s toe-curlingly awkward for Elisabeth but does a laudable job of establishing the imbalance of her character between acting like an asshole and wishing she were nicer – and who is utterly enthralled by Elisabeth, not by her last name, not by her job, not by her wealth or her own relative fame. He likes her, and she realizes the difference between being liked and being used. I wish, though, that Daniel had been more developed as a character. As underdone as he was, he seemed like a catalyst for Elisabeth than a choice on her part. And there is a moment when Elisabeth is so unbelievably horrid to Daniel’s mother that it took a good hour away from the book for me to calm down.
The best part about the book? The writing. Hands down, even with a character who bugged the ever living goddam shit out of me, Palmer is an adept master at the phrase that makes one snort and nod – nod because she’s right about what she’s describing, and snort because she skewers it perfectly. The very best and poignant line of the book comes at the end, when Elisabeth realizes the full ramifications of that fact that ultimately, she has to play her FU card to her own self.
Palmer’s writing is what made the book better than the character in it, a character who so irritated me it was hard to root for her sometimes. While I can’t say I loved this book, I’d happily read another book written by Liza Palmer.