Radiant Shimmering Light / Sarah Selecky
Toronto: HarperAvenue, c2018.
I read this book as soon as it was released -- I enjoyed Selecky's first book of short stories, and in this new one she is tackling a fascinating subject.
It's a furtherance to the story of Lilian Quick, a character in one of the stories from This Cake is for the Party. What has happened to Lilian? Well, she is still in Toronto, and in her early 40s, and she is muddling along painting pet portraits for people; her specialty is seeing and painting the pets' auras. Into this struggling artist life comes Lilian's cousin Florence, whom she hasn't seen in years. Florence is now going by the name of "Eleven", and running a large and financially successful women's empowerment lifestyle brand. Think a mix of Oprah &Tony Robbins with some multilevel marketing thrown in.
Eleven invites Lilian to become a part of her office staff, only for Lilian's benefit of course. So Lilian up and moves to New York, becomes involved in this work, and starts making money. Lots and lots of money.
She also becomes more fit, more confident, and has a fling -- which unfortunately doesn't end the way she had imagined.
This novel is all about empowerment, the commercialization of spirituality, and the tension between being successful and being true to yourself. Selecky has said she didn't intend this as satire, and it does read a little uncomfortably at times -- is the author being disingenous or gently satirizing these kind of organizations? I'd hope there is a balance there.
Lilian is an interesting character, too. Slightly naive, slightly more 'small town' than Eleven despite living in Toronto. She has connections and friends (and possibly more than a friend) in Toronto - should she give them up to become a guru of sorts, or remain committed to her own path as a pet portraitist?
It's a fascinating conundrum, all the more so because Selecky does not indicate to us which path is "better" for Lilian. There is no authorial hint as to her own opinion, and the ending is quite ambiguous. Lilian could choose either way in the final pages, and there seem to be possibilities for either one to work out.
Because of this noncommittal narrative, this would be a great book club book -- there are so many potential threads to follow. Nothing ends up set in stone, and there could be solid arguments for many outcomes. I think the story is really timely in theme, and in style. There's lots of reference to Instagram, branding, sales, etc. that roots it firmly in its 2016 setting (Selecky says she had to decide on a year and stick with it as online life is changing so fast). Sometimes the 2016 tags are inserted a little clunkily, and sometimes big things that you'd think would be mentioned in a book set in America in 2016 were glossed over.
Still, I read this very quickly, and really enjoyed the way it feels modern, timely, relevant, and yet is also a thoughtful and engaging novel. Definitely a must read for those who enjoy contemporary fiction.
Also: I went to a local book event when this book was launching, and most coincidentally (although Eleven might ask if things are ever really a coincidence...) I had made a dress that matched the cover perfectly - in another literary sewing challenge. So of course I had to wear it!
This seems to mirror, somewhat, Kerry Clare's Mitzi Bytes in the look at online life and how our public personas can take over. Both books also offer a thoughtful examination of female life in our modern era.