Disclosure: This book was purchased for my personal collection. *Purchasing links in this review are connected to my Amazon Associates account; I will earn a small percentage of any sales these links generate.
Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress: Tales of Growing Up Groovy and Clueless
Susan Jane Gilman (blog)
Grand Central Publishing (2005), Paperback (ISBN 0446679496 / 9780446679497)
Memoir, 368 pages
Opening lines (from the Introduction): “This is a book about growing up ambitious and engaging in some spectacularly imbecilic behavior.”
Susan Gilman grew up in a “transitional” (pre-gentrified), mixed-race neighborhood on the Upper West Side of New York City during the 1970’s which reminded me of the transitional neighborhood about an hour’s drive away where I did some of my own growing up during the same time period. But Susan was quite a bit more adventurous than I was, and her upbringing was more influenced by the experimental culture of the time – family transcendental-meditation classes, for example. As she moved into her teens, drugs and sex became the most frequent areas of experimentation, as she became consumed with terror that she’d be the only girl in her high-school class still burdened with virginity at graduation. (No spoiler, but her fear was unfounded. However, it did ring a bell with me. I was in high school around the same time, before HIV and treatment-resistant STDs, and there was a sense among at least some of my classmates that they’d “get it over with” sooner rather than later – possibly at a party like any of the ones Gilman describes and that I was too much of a “straight” to be invited to.) College was more of the same, but as she developed her writing career through a mix of freelancing and offbeat staff positions – writer/reporter for a Jewish weekly newspaper, communications director for a freshman Congresswoman – she became obsessed with different things.
Despite what I’ve mentioned in the previous paragraph, though, this is not a party-girl memoir. Gilman consistently places her experiences within the social and cultural framework of their times, reflects on them with insight and affection, and doesn’t spare the embarrassing details. But Gilman’s “cultural framework” includes a feminist consciousness which the reader can see emerging as her story builds, culminating in the essay that lends its title to the book. She’s not the first woman who’s fought to reconcile her feminism and intention to be the “Anti-Bride” with the longing to feel “like a bride” upon meeting the wedding-industrial complex, she’s not likely to be the last, and her efforts to come to terms with the trappings of gender roles and The Big Day definitely struck a chord.
Susan Jane Gilman has some great stories to tell, and an engaging and humorous way of telling them. I think women of our generation – the same generation I addressed in reviewing Gail Collins’ history of the modern women’s movement, When Everything Changed – will encounter a lot in Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress that resonates, from pop-culture references to adolescent feelings and fears to perceptions of the world around us, but I don’t think the appeal of this book is by any means limited to my own age group. This is memoir of our times as much as the times of one particular woman, and I’m glad that the Women Unbound Challenge finally gave me the nudge to free it from TBR Purgatory.
Reading Challenge Commitments: Women Unbound (2 of 5), RYOB 2010 (3 of 20), Memorable Memoirs
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