The Paper Wasp

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Thank you to Grove Atlantic for providing me with Lauren Acampora’s novel, The Paper Wasp, in exchange for an honest review.

Abby and Elise were childhood best friends raised in a small town in Michigan. They began to grow apart when as a teenager, Elise became involved in acting and her career took off.

Flash-Forward to their late 20’s: Elise is an actress living in Hollywood, while Abby is stuck in their small town, a college dropout. She is working retail and dreaming of a career in the film industry. Abby obsesses over Elise, saving every magazine article that features her former friend. The two women reconnect, when they both attend their high school reunion. Following the reunion, Abby decides to run off to Hollywood, showing up on Elise’s doorstep. Elise, takes Abby in for an extended stay, treating Abby to a taste of her lavish lifestyle. Soon, the boundaries of their relationship are blurred, when Abby accepts a job being Elise’s personal assistant. The situation is further strained by Abby’s growing ambition, a ticking time-bomb that is ready to explode.

I absolutely loved The Paper Wasp. Acampora is a masterful writer, combing gorgeous prose with complex characters. I could not put The Paper Wasp down and plowed through it in a single afternoon.

I’m a Los Angeles native and I found the way that Acampora captured the city to be perfect. There is a wonderful moment where Elise drives Abby through Hollywood for the first time, noting its lackluster, dingy atmosphere, which is a strong contrast both Abby’s perceived image of Hollywood and to Elise’s glamorous lifestyle. Elise takes meditation classes at an exclusive institute and although I’m not sure of a real-life counterpart, it is certainly something that exists in Los Angeles. It has strange, ethereal quality, but is also is a bit of a cult. I could easily imagine the type of fellow Angeleno’s, not only celebrities, who would have a membership to this type of club. One of the more memorable aspects of the institution, is their crazy costume parties, where members come dressed as images from their dreams. It’s strange and magical, with a hint of a nightmarish quality; akin to a scene from Alice in Wonderland.

There is another contrast, when Abby travels back to Michigan to see her sister. Her sister is a drug addict, who has recently had a baby daughter. Abby visits her sister and niece, seeing that they live in a filthy trailer barely able to make ends meet. Abby’s heart tells her to kidnap her niece and save her from the poverty and neglect, but she can’t act on it.

Abby’s obsession with Elise creates a tension throughout the story. In the start, she appears to be a bit of a stalker, but then as we see the dynamic between the two women, it is clearer that Abby is more concerned with the lack of direction that her life has taken. She is envious of Elise, who doesn’t seem to deserve her lucky breaks. Rather than wishing to be Elise, Abby thinks that she is more deserving or at least, if she were to have a good opportunity, she would know how to make the most of it. We learn that Abby has been carrying around a terrible secret that is making her more motivate to take risks in life. Abby becomes emboldened throughout the story, making her actions increasing erratic, creating a sense of danger.

When Abby is confronted with the real Elise, not the Elise from the magazine articles, she realizes that her friend lacks self-confidence. Elise lives a messy life. This sets up a social commentary on how we view celebrity, or even ordinary people, via carefully curated social media accounts. Abby couldn’t imagine the real Elise, because she was so caught-up in the fake, media version. Not only that, Abby spent a decade so hyper-focused on this fake Elise, that when she was confronted with the truth, her world cracked open.

The Paper Wasp is my current favorite read of 2019. I was hooked from the first page and cannot wait to read Acampora’s collection of short stories, The Wonder Garden. She is such a talented writer.

The Dead Inside

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Thank You to Sourcebooks Fire for providing me with an advanced copy of Cyndy Etler’s memoir, The Dead Inside, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– In her memoir, The Dead Inside, Cyndy Etler recounts her time spent in a Straight Incorporated facility during the late 80’s. Straight Incorporated was a highly controversial treatment program to get troubled kids clean from drugs. The program preyed on the drug paranoia of the 1980’s ( Just Say No) and some of the kids, like Etler, were placed in the program, despite not having addiction problems.

LIKE- In efforts to write a fair review, I need to be upfront and admit that upon requesting The Dead Inside from Netgalley, I did not realize that it was a memoir aimed at young adults. I do not often read YA literature ( occasionally, but rarely) and I don’t think that I’ve read a YA memoir, since I was a young adult. That said, at nearly forty years old, I’m not the target audience for Etler’s memoir.

I requested this, thinking it was an adult aimed memoir and I was interested in Etler’s traumatic experience in a cult-like immersive therapy situation. I had heard of Straight Incorporated, as its controversy has popped up in many news stories, but I was interested in a deeper look, which drew me to Etler’s memoir. Her story is upsetting and outrageous. She is very candid with regard to sharing the intimate details of her profoundly disturbing experience.

At the end of the advanced readers copy, there is a note that the final version will have a mini biography about Straight Incorporated. I think this will improve The Dead Inside, as I felt that the program needed a stronger explanation to compliment Etler’s experiences. I hope that it will include info on what the parent’s were told to manipulate them to keep their kids enrolled in the program. What was Straight Incorporated sales pitch to Etler’s parents? It must have been very slick, as it’s hard to imagine parents allowing their children to be away from them for months, even years, with little contact.

DISLIKE– To be fair, I’m unsure if my major dislike has more to do with it being written for young adults, or YA aside, I didn’t connect with Etler’s writing? I felt like I was reading a teleplay for an ABC After School Special from the 80’s. It was very melodramatic throughout. The problem with this, is almost immediately, I didn’t trust Etler. I thought that she was an unreliable narrator, which given this is a memoir, made me feel a little guilty. Even with the terrible things that happened to her at Straight Incorporated, I never wavered from thinking that she wasn’t as innocent as she was claiming. I can believe that her drug use was a new thing and not likely to escalate, however, she had major attitude towards her mom and a desperate desire to be accepted by the kids in the bad part of town. She was definitely looking for rebellion and I can understand her mother’s fear. Etler was running away from home, heading on the path for bigger trouble.

Etler mentions problems with her step-father and alludes to abuse, including sexual abuse. She mentions her mother turning a blind eye and she thinks that her mother sent her into the program to get her out of the way, more than to help her. I believe the abuse, but going back to the unreliable narrator situation, I didn’t believe this about Etler’s mother. Etler’s family situation should have been more at the heart of the story, but I felt muddled regarding their dynamic. I didn’t have a good grasp on why Etler was acting out or how things escalated to having her sent to the program. I wish this had been a larger portion of her memoir for clarity.

The sensationalism of Straight Incorporated is the primary focus of The Dead Inside. As such, I felt removed from the emotion of Etler’s experience because the outrageous and often unbelievable techniques from the program, took center stage. Assuming all of this is true, it’s shocking and horrific. I couldn’t shake Etler as an unreliable narrator, so some of the crazier antics, I had trouble believing happened.

But my main issue with The Dead Inside, is the lack of reflection or purpose. Etler sums up her adult life by mentioning that she now helps troubled kids, which is wonderful, but this quick summation doesn’t offer much introspection. I think it would have been a stronger read, if she had added more of her adult perspective, including how her experience has impacted the kids she helps now. The shock value aspect could have been used more sparingly for greater impact.

Again, I do not have experience with YA memoirs, so I’m not sure if this is the norm for the genre, but Etler writes in a manner that is youthful: filled with slang and bad language. The vibe is “adults just don’t get me.” It felt disingenuous. It was cringe worthy in many parts and I can’t think of any teenager that I know who would respond to this narrative. I’m a little younger than Etler and looking back, I can’t imagine this appealing to me as a teen.

RECOMMEND– No, however I could be off the mark with my assessment of the YA memoir. I think Etler has both a fascinating and disturbing story to share, but The Dead Inside did not work for me.