Review: Novel About the Self-Proclaimed First Mother of Blogging and Her "Famous Baby"
I stumbled upon Karen Rizzo's first novel Famous Baby through the Los Angeles Times Summer Book preview. I was reeled in by the blurb describing the plot as "18-year-old Abbie kidnaps her ailing grandma to save her from being exploited by Abbie's mother, a limelight-seeking mommy blogger," coupled with reviews saying it was humorous and snappy, even.
I like snappy, and I'm deeply interested in the evolution of how the media portrays bloggers and blogging. Humor, parody and satire can be fantastic ways to look at our culture, and as a blogger, blog reader and pop culture writer I don't shy away from material just because mom bloggers are on the skewer. In fact, that's compelling to me. I've always asserted that bloggers have to be able to give it as well as take it and as a part segment of the media we should be examined and satirized just as we examine and satirize other sectors. In fact, I've poked so much fun at blogging that I've gotten myself in trouble with my peers in the past, and I'd love to see it done well from the outside.
The theme of the book interested me as well. I hold some concerns about parental overshare while at the same time admiring peers who think differently, ultimately opting not to blog about my kids as a personal choice. We are living some big questions. So in all, I was curious enough to delve in with a lot of hope for an insightful, contemporary story. (Speaking of oversharing: the following contains spoilers for Famous Baby.)
Too bad the novel wasn't truly funny, because I really wanted it to be. What Famous Baby gave me instead of an inventive novel was a rather predictable and whiny tale about a narcissistic mother and a typical mother-daughter tussle told in alternating first-person chapters, a tired take on blogging full of didactic soundbites about oversharing, and a schmatlzy storyline that takes a sidetrack into assisted suicide to make points about secrets and grief.
I don't think every protagonist needs to be likeable, and some of the most compelling characters in fiction can be difficult women, so that wasn't my problem with Famous Baby. But when every character is an unlikeable stand-in from Central Casting, it's hard to keep plowing through the pages. It's a quick read though, so it might work for a poolside afternoon story if you need a downer, your mileage, as we used to say, may vary.
Given that it's predicated on stereotypes, I decided to take a look at those tropes. It's fairly easy to see about Rizzo, as a representative of audiences, perceives about parent blogging. She uses shorthand culled from popular characterizations about the industry and about parent writers in particular, and she wove it all into the particularly unlikeable character of Ruth Sternberg Handler, self-proclaimed First Mother of Blogging. Ruth is a crappy mom, a self-centered daughter who seems unmoved by her mother's disease and impending death, a divorcee, and a sadly shallow, albeit ambitious, writer. She's punished for her crimes throughout the book, physically with falls and food poisioning, but more poignantly with emotional losses.
It's hard to care because she's so nasty, but she's not a fully empowered villain, either. Based on stereotypes, Rizzo does construct Ruth by borrowing a few details here and there from bloggers you might recognize and from other realms. Like The Devil Wears Prada lite with a url.
Ruth's daughter Abbie grew up as the focus of her mom's blog, and she's ruined by it. She endured humilations from peers because of her mother's posts, and felt continually used and betrayed by her mother's blogging. Finally able to free herself from that exploitation upon graduation she leaves, but her anger is reignited when she learns that Ruth is rigging the house with cameras to document Abbie's grandmother's hospice care during Ester's decline from cancer.
Mama needs content, after all. The first line of Chapter Five reads "How the fuck am I supposed to blog with the fucking...blogee? And pictures, and the Vimeo preview? I haven't tweeted in twelve hours!"
So, yeah, the blogging part of the novel isn't told believably at all, and neither are the subplots or dialogue. It's all told with hyperbole and without nuance. There are some humorous passages, mostly (cringe) when Ruth gets hurt or sick, when her agent is bit by a spider and leaves her, and when the older folks smoke pot. Overall, you can't miss the themes. We hurt each other both with our disclosures and secrets. We're all self-absorbed, both as mothers and daughters but mostly mothers. Try to forgive each other if you can, but it doesn't really matter, because we'll die pretty much ignored by the people around us while taken care of by strangers. And as far as blogging goes, don't do it.
Abbie's pissed about having a mother who "treats all the people closest to her as the tools of her own ambition."
"You spoiled my Christmas, Ruth. I couldn't open Christmas presents without you writing an article about it. I even got emails from strangers congratulating me on having my period! All because you never came up with another decent idea for a novel! You were done--you didn't have it in you, so you made me into your lab rat instead! It was painful. All of it. Did you ever consider that?"
"Painful? You never said--"
"Couldn't you tell?! Oh, my God!"
Abbie had already told us several times that she had tried talking to her mother. But if confronted about oversharing, Abbie would:
...go catatonic, and it's like she'd disappear--no one home. Really, in hindsight, I think I was a little scared that she'd lost her mind if she ever had to stop writing about our lives.
Mom blogging is bad, m'kay? Here are some of the details from the novel that might be interesting in looking at how blogging is represented in the novel:
- Ruth's blog is called Full Nest Blog and she lives in Los Angeles by way of New York.
- She is a thin blonde who swears easily, is completely narcissistic, rageful and superficial, and is shown hiding and abusing Vicodin and Paxil.
- Ruth is divorced from Abbie's father who has jumped through many reinventions and has become a spiritual bodywork healer. Namaste.
- She has a "somewhat dwindling readership" at 1.7 million, and her agent keeps her focused on sponsors like expensive eye cream brand as well as cashing in through a potential reality series.
- She makes choices like driving an eco-friendly car purely to "look like I care."
- Speaking of cosmetics, Ruth's mother sold cosmetics as a career.
- Everyone else is a failed novelist. Ruth has written one novel but couldn't finish her second. Ruth's father was a failed novelist turned marketer. Justin, Abbie's father, realized "he wasn't narcissistic enough to have a successful and lucrative career as a writer so he became an editor."
- Ruth suffered from post-partum depression after having Abbie and blogged about violent fantasies.
- Abbie is traumatized from reading content like that, and about reading about her parent's sex life and other sexual content shared by her mother, as well as by being recognized by fans.
- Not too traumatized, though. One plotline includes a young man whose foster mother was a fan of Ruth's. He became fixated on the photos of Abbie and her doting mother, stalked Abbie and then becoming her love interest (WTF?!)
- But this was traumatic: Ruth decorated Abbie's bedroom in the style "Disney hooker-queen"against her wishes.
- When Ruth was a child her mother shut down in grief after a serious loss, and compensating for her silences are part of what compel Ruth to overshare.
- The novel contains a few blog entries. They are pretty awkward and don't ring true. Ruth ends each entry with the closing line "Alrighty then."
- Ruth loves reading her comments. She loves having fans.
- Abbie is smart, keen on the sciences and plans to eventually study medicine at Stanford.
- She fantasized about started a website RuthSternbergIsanOpportunisticPrehistoricPredator.com. It bothered her that "Free Abbie" stories were once published at Jezebel.
- Other sites mentioned by name because Ruth is afraid of coverage by them: Gawker, Huffpo, TMZ (ha.) Gwyneth got a shout-out, too.
- Blogger cocktail parties and events in L.A are vaguely mentioned.
- Abbie's humorous bestseller for moms is called Girls' Guide to New Humans, and the sequel is entitled Women's Guide to the New Aliens Among Us (Better Known as Teenagers). To cover up the delay of Hospice Vimeos (seriously?) Abbie features guest blogger Joy Bowden, author of "the incredibly wise and funny Put on a Happy F^#king Face: A Zen Guide to Finding Bliss (Without Botox) Over 40."
I guess my disappointment was that it just didn't ring true, and you can't extrapolate fun while only being grounded in stereotypes to start with. The blogging theme is more of a premise and an incendiary talking point than a fully realized part of a satirical novel or a real novelization of the effect of mom blogging on children. Others outside of blogging might not stumble on that problem and might enjoy Famous Baby as a light, relationship-driven read, who knows? I had better luck with other books mentioned on the summer reading guide, including Cristina Henríquez's The Book of Unknown Americas, and it's only July, plenty of time for more summer reading in the next few months.