Erica Kennedy's Feminista is classic chic lit, but with a somewhat unusual twist that I'll discuss in the second half of this review. The novel tells the story of Sydney Zamora, a 30-something, attractive, biracial woman who earns a six-figure salary writing an occasional celebrity expose for the fictional glossy Cachet. When she is not working, which seems to be most of the time, she gets $80 pedicures, enjoys trendy restaurants, and tries on shoes and handbags so expensive that it would take several days of ATM use before one could accumulate the necessary cash for the purchase.
The lifestyle is earned, more or less. Sydney has a blue-collar background and started at Cachet as a lowly intern before a combination of her writing talent, good (albeit a little crazy) mentorship, and a racial discrimination lawsuit against Cachet (with which she had no involvement) leads to a glamorous position that Sydney cherishes for the lifestyle it affords her and resents for the "affirmative action" hire that it was. The irony, of course, and I think Kennedy makes this statement quite intentionally, is that Sydney never needed any affirmative action. Given her intelligence, talent, and assertive personality, she would have done just fine left to her own devices, or rather, she would have if Cachet actually rewarded merit rather than status and reputation.
The catch, of course, is that Sydney is single and at 34, beginning to feel that "reproductively, she was on orange alert." (6). At the beginning of the novel, she decides that she wants a baby and, though she certainly realizes that there are other options (her sister is raising kids in a lesbian relationship), she resolves to start by finding a man who not only loves her but can also give her the kind of financial security she believes she needs.
It's not an unreasonable goal, and normally, as a reader, I would root for the heroine to get what she wants, but Sydney is hardly a typical heroine. The "twist" I mentioned in the first sentence is that, though she's witty and obviously smart, Sydney is deliberately drawn to not be particularly likeable. Kennedy is very much on the record with this, as, for example, in this description of Sydney in her interview with Britni Danielle for This Side of the Wall:
I also wanted Sydney to be angry and SHOW that anger because I think a woman showing her anger is a feminist act. As women we are socialized to be nice, to not make waves, to put others first. Sydney is the antithesis of all that. She's angry, she's confrontational, she's always looking out for number one. When I was writing FEM, I was reading a lot of books about "shadow work", the Jungian idea that we all have this shadow side comprised of traits we don't like about ourselves and therefore try to repress. Sydney is someone who lets her shadow side just hang the f*ck out in broad daylight. A woman like that can make people uncomfortable which I love because then we have to ask WHY we are uncomfortable.
This approach is risky. Chic-lit is usually "comfort" reading, and in Sydney we have a character that is intentionally drawn to at least create the possibility of discomfort. It almost seems like a recipe for disaster, and despite the tremendous success of her first novel (Bling was a New York Times bestseller), Kennedy says (see interview above) that she had trouble getting a publisher to bite on Feminista.
Obviously, St Martin's Press came through with the contract and, despite the difficult setup, Kennedy somehow manages to make the book appealing, even if its main character often isn't. Though I didn't necessarily like Sydney, apart from her materialism, I generally respected her. And if, like Mitzi and Max, I sometimes found myself altogether exasperated with her, I could never quite turn my back on her either. I wanted to keep turning the pages, not so much because I wanted to know if Sydney would fall in love but because I was curious about what it would take and how she would need to change in order to do so. She does eventually change, in relatively profound ways. And though I sometimes found myself straining to believe the realism of her change, it is this change that provided the emotional payoff for reading, as well as the opportunity to examine our own shadow. We may expect that from a Dostoevsky roman, but in this lighter genre, it is an unexpected and delightful gift, at least for those brave souls willing to tolerate a little discomfort.
There is one other aspect of Feminista that I feel compelled to discuss, an aspect that regular readers of this blog may be surprised I have not yet mentioned. As a race scholar/writer, what attracted me to this book was the anticipation that it would have something to say about U.S. racial dynamics in terms of romantic relationships or, perhaps, regarding the challenge of balancing work and romance for a woman of color. Kennedy is African American, and though that in no way requires her to take on racial issues, I knew that Publisher's Weekly described Feminista as a "crazed black romantic comedy." This was appealing to me, and I was looking forward to reading and reviewing the book's racial themes.
The racial themes are, in fact, present. At one point Sydney observes her comfort during a date with a Black professional football player and attributes it to the fact that they are both of the same tribe. And there is that "affirmative action" hire described earlier, and at least a half dozen other racialized interactions, including one with a Prince-inspired celebrity that played a key role in her character's development. I could, as I originally intended, analyze these racial themes, but doing so would dishonor the spirit of the book. Sydney's world (like our own) is far from post-racial and Sydney certainly has an awareness of how her world is racialized, but Kennedy's references and observations are so subtle, so clearly NOT the object of her focus, that it just doesn't make any sense to focus on them in the review.
But I will make one observation in this context: Sydney is biracial. As such, she doesn't fit neatly into our traditional racial categories. This makes it more difficult foro others to understand her and relate to her and makes her life more complicated in some ways. However, at the same time, it also seems to open up for her a wider array of choices than she might otherwise have. I think in many ways, Sydney represents the optimistic version of the future of American society. I'm glad she made it.