'Waking Beauty' Is a Book That Should Not Be Judged by Its Cover

by Zachary Houle

28 July 2004

cover art

Waking Beauty

Elyse Friedman

(Three Rivers Press)

OK. So you’re probably looking at the title of the book up for review, you’re looking at the thumbnail of its cover on the side of this article, and you’re asking yourself, “Gee, Zach, are you totally going Queer Eye For The Straight Guy on us?” (Though I hope you really aren’t thinking that, because God only knows I’m a rather small fish in the large ocean of writing and reviewing. I could tell you the dangers of an over-inflated ego firsthand, but I’m digressing.)

Anyway, you’re looking at that cover, and noticing that it has those pastel colors, and a rather blurry picture of a sleepy beauty lying beside a diamond tiara that just screams “princess.” It looks like Chick Lit; it smells like Chick Lit. What on earth would someone owning a penis want to do reading, let alone reviewing, that kind of thing?

Good question, and one with a very worthy answer. I promise.

A couple years ago, I picked up a remaindered copy of Toronto author Elyse Friedman’s 1999 debut novel about a very dysfunctional family, Then Again, in the bargain bin of a independent bookstore for a paltry $5—probably the best $5 I’ve ever spent on a book in my life. Not only did I get into a rather pleasant conversation with a coffee shop cashier about the book when I brought it with me to a java joint to enjoy with my double-double (he’d excitedly vouched for its “twist ending”), I gave it to my girlfriend only to watch her devoured the book in a matter of hours. I know my copy of Then Again made the rounds from there, and was given to at least a couple of family members and friends. So, if that doesn’t define a book worthy of your time, I’m not sure what does.

Which brings us to Waking Beauty. A book that probably wasn’t meant for me, a book that I should have disliked from the get-go.

Now, if I sound a bit biased and anti-Chick Lit here, I suppose it’s simply just not my genre of choice—a choice that probably has something to do with my genes, if not what’s in my jeans. It’s with much regret to say that, hadn’t it been for Then Again, I probably wouldn’t have cared, let alone paid attention to Waking Beauty. But I’m man enough to say that I plugged my nose and started reading this, and came to the conclusion that ignoring this book based on its cover and plot summary alone would have been a huge mistake. It’s really that good.

Waking Beauty is about a virginal, overweight young woman who wakes up one morning to discover, faster than you can say Kafka, she has been magically transformed into a Perfect 10. The next 200-odd pages go into the consequences of such a transformation—and if you don’t know where the book is quickly headed, please do run to your nearest IQ testing clinic as fast as you can.

That said, Waking Beauty has a lot going for it. For starters, how about a great sense of timing, seeing as though it’s being released when ugly-to-beauty pageants like The Swan and Extreme Makeover are all the rage on reality TV? Two, the heroine of our tale is in love with a film geek. This means that, for some of us guys in touch with pop culture, there’s a lot of serious film talk about foreign and art cinema to distract us from the, um, more “feminine” parts of Waking Beauty. (You know. The yucky bits where the main character goes shopping for clothes and stuff like that.)

Thirdly, and probably most importantly, Friedman spends a great deal of the book inverting common clichés and stereotypes when it comes to femininity and even human sexual power relationships. Once our pimply heroine turns into a ravishing beauty, and finds herself walking down a street to find a bunch of macho guys ogling her and making catcalls, what does she do? Naturally, she gets into a back alley tryst with one of them—with rather comic results. The resulting scene might go into territory that Sophie Kinsella probably would never dare venture, but is still remarkably restrained for someone who included a shit-eating scene in her previous novel.

Naturally, there are some problems with this book. Walking Beauty, like Then Again before it, boasts a sort-of surprise ending—a rather unconventional one at that—that, despite being welcome and refreshing, also stops the book dead cold. Some of the supporting characters seem like little fleshed-out thumbnail sketches, and some of the writing seems a little rushed overall. But I’ll bet that with a bit of promotion, Waking Beauty could be wildly popular, seeing as though it plays into many women’s secret fantasy to have perfect teeth and skin.

Walking Beauty might be Chick Lit, but even still it’s an enjoyable, even educational read for men and women alike. I, for one, realized that maybe men don’t read these books because they think they’re trashy and escapist (as I once did). We don’t read them because they tell us the awful, ugly truth: what women really think about us. Thankfully, Friedman has the balls to not make too many jokes at our expense, which is why I’m still looking forward to her next book. And, may I add, with the same breathless enthusiasm that I did once before.

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