Book talk: *Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress,* by Susan Jane Gilman

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 by Susan Jane Gilman
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.”

Book Description: From the author of Kiss My Tiara comes a funny and poignant collection of true stories about women coming of age that for once isn’t about finding a date. In Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, she describes what it’s like to grow up a woman in the contemporary world. In sharp, observant essays, she writes about the awkwardness of adolescence; the constant, dull pain of peer pressure; the serfdom of entry-level employment. The ring of truth; a dash of laughter.

Comments: It seems that I struck gold in the book section at Target one day a couple of years ago, browsing while waiting for a prescription; I came home with Susan Jane Gilman’s Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress and But Enough About Me by Jancee Dunn. I read – and loved – Dunn’s memoir a while ago, but didn’t get to Gilman’s until I put on my reading list for the Women Unbound Challenge…and now I’m kicking myself for not reading it sooner. There are similarities in topic and tone between the two books; they’re both about women who grew up in the Northeast during the 1970’s and later became writers. My reaction to Gilman’s book was also similar to my response to Dunn’s; I identified with it strongly, laughed out loud frequently, enjoyed it tremendously, and would love to spend an afternoon just hanging out and talking with the author.

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.

Rating: 4/5

Reading Challenge Commitments: Women Unbound (2 of 5), RYOB 2010 (3 of 20), Memorable Memoirs

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  1. Although I wasn't as big a fan of this particular Gilman book as you are, I think I'll read her newer one sometime soon, because you remind me of all the good things about her writing!

    Also, I don't see the place to comment on the test post after this one. I'm using a Mac; sometimes that throws things off. (?)

  2. Jeanne – There should be a commenting link on each post now, so you won't have to click the permalink for the post itself.

    I have her last book (just out in paperback) on my wish list to buy as soon as Lent is over :-).

  3. Sheri (Menagerie) – I really enjoyed this one, but I'm looking forward to reading Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven, too.