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.