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BOOK REVIEW – Bitter is the New Black

In the prologue to her first memoir, Jen Lancaster defines her “boutique-to-barrio” tale as a modern Greek tragedy, where the central character “suffers some serious misfortune which is not accidental, and therefore meaningless, but is significant in that the misfortune is logically connected.”

"In other words?” she writes. “The bitch had it coming.”

Bitter is the New Black is the first in a series of memoirs she has published over the past three years. It begins with a look back at the “good old days,” when Jen was making a six figure salary, on top of her game, and living it up at all the fancy restaurants, bars, and (perhaps most important to her) stores in town.

She is totally obnoxious, self-absorbed, and self-righteous – and she knows it. She’s even proud of it.

And yet, you can’t help but like her! In an “I-must-watch-this-trainwreck-unravel” kind of way.

She is unabashedly child free, which sort of feeds the stereotype of us being “selfish.” Nevertheless, her humor and her wit will make you laugh out loud.

Like many of us, she realized she did not want to have kids at an early age. During summer vacation in high school, she reluctantly agrees to babysit, because she simply must augment her measly $100 back-to-school-clothes budget supplied by her parents.

When her mother suggests babysitting, Jen says “But I hate kids.” Her mother responds, “Yet you love money.” To which Jen replies, “You make an excellent point.”

So she sets out to build up her clientele. She becomes a hit with the parents, not because she is a wonderful, warm and fuzzy babysitter, but because she always cleans the house spotless before their return.

“I’ve never been great with kids,” she writes. “They are self-centered, attention-grabbing, illogical, sticky little beasts with terrible taste in TV shows.” But she soldiers on, earning enough cash to show up all the other girls’ wardrobes at school that fall.

In another scene toward the end of the book, Jen’s brother asks her to come babysit his three children. After a chaotic evening trying to feed them, bathe them, calm their sugar-highs, and get them into bed, Jen calls her husband.

“Parts of the evening were trying,” she tells him, “but it’s such a great payoff to see the kids all happy and snug in their beds. Maybe…maybe you and I should reconsider our decision to be child-free….After all, I got everything done! Seriously, I must be some kind of superwoman because I was able to keep the house orderly and the kids clean and it’s only…only…Fletch, I’m not wearing my watch. What time is it?”

After hunting for his glasses in the dark, her husband responds, “Jen, do you realize it’s one thirty-three in the morning?”

“Oh,” she says. “Perhaps I am not quite the domestic goddess I’d imagined.”

Then she jokes that she is “getting every organ even vaguely related to reproduction cauterized immediately.”

In spite of Jen’s quips about kids throughout the book, Bitter this not a “child free book.” Her anecdotes are sprinkled throughout the story, making her decision not to have kids fit in seamlessly with the narrative.

The central point of the book is her epiphany about how she has been living her life. As her unemployment drags on, Jen begins to realize that perhaps she has made a few mistakes in her priorities. The things she used to think were important, suddenly don’t seem so important after all.

Like all of her books, Bitter is full of footnotes (some hysterical, some annoying) and cute little emails and letters. I enjoyed watching Jen’s transformation, but admittedly in the beginning of the book I found myself mildly offended, wondering how anyone could be that bitchy.

But then I realized, that’s the whole point of the book!

It is a quick, easy read – perfect for summer!

Bitter is the New Black is Jen’s first memoir, followed by Bright Lights, Big Ass (click on link for my review of that). Her latest book Such a Pretty Fat was recently released. She is working on a fourth memoir, expected to come out next year, called Pretty in Plaid.


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