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Hypocrite In A Pouffy White Dress
ISBN 0-446-67949-6
By Susan Jane Gilman
Review by: Michelle Humphrey

06/06/05

After Gilman’s last book, the deliciously snarky and wise Kiss My Tiara, I was expecting some choice riffing on the symbolic white dress of this book’s title. But nowhere do the ivory-clad icons of our history, say, Emily Dickinson and Desdemona, dance on a bar doing Jello shots off each other. Instead Hypocrite In A Pouffy White Dress is Gilman’s largely blissful coming-of-age memoir from her kindergarten obsession with ballerinas to her pre-wedding days where, against the feminist voices in her head, she falls in love with her pouffy reflection in the mirror at David’s Bridal, and comes to one of her superb conclusions: “why did it take so long to have this experience?...Every woman should see herself looking uniquely breathtaking in something tailored to celebrate her body….”

The childhood commentaries best capture her wit and offbeat frankness. (Here’s a standout: Gilman assesses the girlhood fascination with the suffix “ess” as in “princess, countess, stewardess;” notes her family’s squeal of delight when she says she wants to be a stewardess; wonders how much they’d squeal if a beloved son pledged allegiance to the service industry.) But the author seems to outgrow this capacity for fun enlightenment by the time she writes about early adulthood. A young woman’s experience of outsider-ness when a group of lesbians mistake her for one of their own feels like a tired sitcom plot; equally non-revelatory is the moment she decides to take her work seriously at Jewish Week, despite the fact it’s not The New Yorker.

Yet Gilman transforms the people in her life into characters that crawl into the reader’s head and ransack the place: there’s Rhonda Shuggie, the bulimic pill-popper always up for some mid-day fornication in the utility closet of her parents’ coffee shop; there’s Ida Shuggie, a bitter and misogynistic entrepreneur; there’s the heartbreakingly lost Ellen Gilman after her husband leaves her, slowly trekking back to her status as Formidable Woman. These characters are the real draw, even when Gilman mingles them with her own less-enticing insights right out of Memoir 101. (Do we care that the pubescent Gilman could not see the complicated dimensions of Ida Shuggie, when we’re still rankled by the woman herself, who says with disdain to the teenage girl, “You really think you’re equal to any man?”)

In the chapter where the author meets Mick Jagger (another of the occasional lyrical highlights, in which Jagger publicly comments on her bountiful adolescent breasts), Gilman suggests her scenario could have been written as a short story, and she definitely possesses the creative know-how: when she strives to be literary, her instincts are chic and voluptuous, and hint at the kind of novel or short story collection this could have been.


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