Saturday, June 9, 2012

Review: Skinnydipping: A Novel by Bethenny Frankel

Let me start this review by outing myself: I am a Bethenney Frankel fan. I think it is very likely she is absolutely wackadoo crazy and I definitely wouldn’t want her as a flat-mate but she is ridiculously entertaining to watch on television. She personifies the paradox of stardom in that at the same time she is both ordinary and extraordinary: funny, rich, successful but that the same time just like us. I like that she’s determined and ambitious and that’s she’s been successful as a woman in arenas that are traditionally dominated by men – television and liquor. However, I have read her previous three books and, while I did enjoy them and have made many of the recipes from The Skinnygirl Dish (I recommend the white bean and spinach soup and the chocolate cake with peanut butter glaze – both delicious and, when combined, provide a perfectly balanced guilt-free dinner and dessert), the typesetting and editing were awful. So, while I tried to approach this book from a place of yes (see what I did there?), my expectations were not very high.

And I was right to be nervous - this book is really terrible. For starters, I think that Skinnydipping needs to assert itself as a novel in the title is in recognition of the fact that not much of this book is fiction. It’s very clearly a fictionalised representation of Bethenney’s own life. Here’s the plot: wannabe actress Faith Brightstone (what a name!) moves to LA after graduation for NYU (like Bethenney did). She moves in with her emotionally distant father (like Bethenney did) and works as an assistant for the wife of an incredibly successful movie director Josh Kameron (really?), helping look after their two daughters (Bethenney worked for Cathy Hilton and helped look after Paris and Nicki). Faith finds a dog and names it Muffin (Bethenney’s dog is called Cookie), appeared in a soft porn film (like Bethenney did) and then decides that she’s not cut out to be an actress, so she moved back to New York (like Bethenney did). You get the picture. For the rest of the plot, please see Bethenney’s life.

I really have no problem with fictionalising true events. Every author draws on some inspiration from their own life for their work. F. Scott Fitzgerald immortalised versions of Zelda in three of his novels. Helen Garner scandalously did the same thing as Bethenney in her book The First Stone. But the difference is (apart from the fact the Fitzgerald and Frankel will never feature in the literary canon alongside each other!) is that those books were entertaining. The fictional worlds, though based at least partially on reality, were real of themselves and the stories that were dramatised had things to say that were worth saying. All Skinnydipping says is that Bethenney either thinks her audience is too dumb to recognise the story as hers if she changes one little detail or thinks that her life is so entertaining that it should be the subject of both non-fiction and fiction. Bethenney, I heart you and will watch your weekly TV show for as long as it is on the air but really, it isn’t.

The other things I hated about the book were the characters, style and structure. For starters, I had to google ‘swamp crotch’ in the first three pages. That is a bad sign (fyi – it’s gross). The LA Bethenney – sorry, the LA Faith – is just an awful person. She’s selfish, self-involved, narcissistic, inconsiderate, caustic and has a fairly severe eating disorder. Then she moves to New York and all of a sudden the eating disorder disappears and is not mentioned again. What? One-dimensional friends vanish and then new ones appear without explanation. There’s a huge rush to cram the full amount of Bethenney’s life into the last 50 pages (She gets pregnant! She comes second in a reality competition show! She gets engaged! She gets a liquor company to sell her Skinnygirl Margaritas, sorry I mean Pink Lemonade Mojitos! She gets a talk show!), resulting in the pacing of the book becoming very uneven. All of these are major flaws that point to the biggest problem for me with this book. I just cannot understand why, with the amount of revenue that her books generate, Bethenney’s publisher cannot hire a decent editor!

I read this book with a fairly good idea of what kind of book it was going to be, so I have no-one to blame but myself. If you’re like me and you can’t control your morbid curiosity, then at least borrow it from the library. If you can, get a hardcover copy so if you feel the need to hurl it at the wall, you won’t cause any lasting damage to the book. I can’t vouch for the wall though.

Skinnydipping: A Novel gets two stars.   


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