Review of reviews: Books
Book of the week
Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear... and Why
by Sady Doyle (Melville House, $26)
We have all borne witness to the trainwreck syndrome, said Lisa Shea in Elle. A young woman rises to fame only to be publicly shamed after a brush with drugs, mental instability, or perceived sexual infraction. The phenomenon long predates even supermarket tabloids. In Sady Doyle’s “fiercely brilliant, must-read exegesis on the subject,” Mary Wollstonecraft and Charlotte Brontë stand shoulder to shoulder with Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, and Whitney Houston as exemplars of the type. If those latter-day celebrities seem less worthy of a spirited defense, “this book invites you to reset your thinking.” Every trainwreck, Doyle writes, is “a signpost pointing to what ‘wrong’ is, which boundaries we’re currently placing on femininity, which stories we’ll allow women to have.”
Subjecting women’s private lives to pub-“The powerful really are different from you and me,” said Jennifer Senior in The New York Times. In this thrilling new account of a formative adventure in Winston Churchill’s life, the future bulldog of World War II Britain is only 24 and reporting on a war, not fighting one. But the young upstart exhibits a belief in his own greatness that’s as breathtaking as it is endearing, and author Candice Millard makes his experience of the Second Boer War “as involving as a popcorn thriller.” Millard performed a similar service for Teddy Roosevelt in The River of Doubt, and for James Garfield in Destiny of the Republic. Here, her hero is already a failed candidate for Parliament when he heads to South Africa in 1899, hoping to finally win the fame he regards as his destiny. Book of the week lic scrutiny has long been an effective way to keep women from being heard, said Salamishah Tillet in The New York Times. “Consider, as Doyle does, Mary Wollstonecraft.” The proto-feminist British writer initially garnered favorable reviews for her landmark 1792 treatise, A Vindication of the Rights of Women. But when a biography written by her widower revealed her two premarital affairs and two suicide attempts, the news rendered her ideas morally suspect for more than a century. Doyle treads shaky ground when she tries to include the former slave Harriet Jacobs in the trainwreck pantheon, suggesting that sexism, rather than racism, was the reason Jacobs’ 1861 autobiography was discredited. More persuasive is the brief Doyle offers for Britney Spears. Spears went from pop princess to pariah, Doyle argues, largely because she had the misfortune of undergoing a rocky personal stretch in her mid-20s just as new media platforms had made her every move fodder for public consumption.
The book’s “primary weakness”—its blindness to more recent shifts in the culture—is also the best reason for readers to take hope, said Megan Garber in TheAtlantic.com. Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Shonda Rhimes, and Rihanna are ascendant as celebrities precisely because each has seized control of how her story will be told. These days, in fact, “it’s refreshingly difficult to imagine one of our current role models following the path that Spears has.” And meanwhile, a woman is perhaps weeks away from being elected our next president. Trainwreck, for the moment, offers a deep analysis of American culture that a wide audience should read. If we’re lucky, though, it will “soon prove to be out of date.”