The Book of Essie by Meghan MacLean Weir

I’m not in the business of writing “books reviews” so much as I’m in the business of writing “book reactions,” so my disclaimer is that I’m going to be talking about what I liked and didn’t like about whatever book I read most recently. That doesn’t mean things are necessarily good or bad, it just means they were either words in an order I appreciated, or words in an order that I didn’t.

Also, there probaby won’t be spoilers. I’m going to try and talk in circles so that I don’t reveal anything. I definitely don’t have that kind of talent, but I’ll do my best. Anyways, here goes: my review/reaction to The Book of Essie

I saw this book come up on Goodreads, and I have to say, it has one of the most captivating blurbs of all time. You’re hit with intrigue at all angles. Essie (you know, the titular character) is pregnant and needs to get married to save face for her family’s evangelical reality show. Her sister is missing. She’s trying to start a sham marriage with Roarke, who also has a secret. And guess who else has a secret? Conservative blogger turned liberal reporter, Liberty Bell.

Read that paragraph again and tell me you don’t want to go pick this book up from your local library immediately. I don’t think you can.

Now, I’m not going to sit here and say that it was high-brow literature. It read like an elevated version of a Lifetime movie. I’m not saying that to be mean, either–I love Lifetime movies. My mom and I record “Stalked By My Doctor” every time it comes on. What I’m saying is that many of the plot twists are overdramatized and it makes this one of the most captivating reads I’ve picked up in a while. And, unlike a Lifetime movie, it has a moral center! It deals with hard topics like conversion therapy and domestic abuse and not once does anyone in the narrative say those things are okay and get away with it. There’s a lot of forgiveness, but no lack of culpability, and that’s a win.

I’m a sucker for platonic relationships and we get the ultimate one between Roarke and Essie, which is nice. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by revealing that he agrees to fake marry her (if he didn’t would there even be a book at all?), but that decision marks the start of a very beautiful friendship. Even though there are times when both Essie and Roarke talk about their friendship to each other (which no character would do in real life so we know it’s purely for the sake of the young adult reader that may not pick up on the emotion that’s shown and not told), they’re cute like all the time.

Roarke does not say anything, but he reaches out a finger to touch my hand. I wonder if he’s doing it just to shore up the story of our romance, but when his finger hooks around my pinky, I realize that he really means to comfort me. I smile shyly, grateful for his friendship at least, even though it can never be more than that.

See? It’s nice. Platonic hand holding and trustworthiness is good for young adult readers.

Beyond that, though, there are times that the characters feel flat. Just a little too perfect in their goodness or in their wickedness. But I don’t begrudge MacLean Weir her right to make certain characters all bad. I think she did her research on evangelical reality TV (and by “evangelical reality TV” I mean 19 Kids and Counting) and realized that the people who let that kind of stuff continue in order to preserve a television show are despicable.

Others, as well, some devout and others less so, watching with morbid fascination the seeming contradiction that we epitomized. Our family rejected materialism and popular culture, and yet we also produced it…

The show paid for everything. 

The book is very clear that this kind of show is hypocritical, and created for all the wrong reasons. This sentiment is helped along as the point of view switches from Essie to Roarke to Liberty, and so the reader wants to agree with them about all things.

There were times, though, when I was mad at them I wanted them to not be perfect. I wanted Liberty to mess up and say something stupid, I wanted Roarke to yell at someone, I wanted Essie to throw something. There was a lot of forgiveness, which makes for a nice message but doesn’t allow for the kind of anger that’s also acceptable in Essie, Roarke, or Liberty’s situation. The only person who throws a punch was Lissa, and it happens off screen and is distinctly unsatisfying.

But overall, this book’s strengths lie in the fact that it explores the kind of things that fascinate people but repulse them at the same time. Essie’s situation is the kind of horrible I wanted to pretend has never and could never happen in the real world, and yet I know it has, and I’m grateful for the happy ending both she and I were given.

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