Miss Understanding
by Stephanie Lessing
(Avon Trade, $12.95, PG) ISBN 0-06-113388-4
I’m usually the first person in line for a good satire.  Unfortunately, Miss Understanding completely misses the mark.  The novel is supposed to be a take-off on the standard Chick Lit heroine-in-the-publishing-industry saga, but the characters don’t bear any resemblance to functioning human beings, and the plot is so unbelievable it is beyond ludicrous.   

Even on the first day of kindergarten, Zoe Rose never fit in with other girls, thanks to her bushy red hair, lack of fashion sense and organic salt-free lunches.  The only friend she made in elementary school was a poverty-stricken fellow outcast who wore the same dirty pink polka-dot party dress to school every day.  Zoe has devoted her life ever since to the study of other women, and she has made a career out of feminist muckraking.   

Zoe’s sister Chloe is a ditsy fashionista with a passion for shoes whose adventures were detailed in Lessing’s debut novel, She’s Got Issues.  Chloe is now married to the editor of Issues, the fashion magazine where she works.  Inexplicably, her husband Dan has decided to hire Zoe as his deputy editor, despite the fact that her journalism experience is entirely in liberal political media such as The Radical Mind.  Dan gives Zoe free reign to completely make over Issues into a feminist satirical treatise.  Forget clothes and makeup – the magazine will now examine why women treat each other shabbily and explain how women can get ahead in their business and personal lives once they embrace their sisterhood.  The articles Zoe plans for the first issue include “Understanding Girls With Moustaches, and “Why Models are Such Assholes.”   

Needless to say, the regular Issues staff are less than thrilled by Zoe’s plans, and do their best to undermine her efforts.  Although Zoe’s boyfriend Michael is supportive, he’s concerned about the impact the new job seems to be having on her health.  Zoe has always been a hypochondriac, but now she is suddenly gaining weight, fainting and vomiting.  Does she have a rare fatal disease or is there a more simple explanation?   

I am a feminist and a former nerd who experienced her share of childhood ridicule on the playground.  And yet this book completely alienated me due to its utter lack of character or plot logic.  Zoe shows up for her first day of work wearing a ripped men’s shirt, field hockey skirt, moldy black boots and no bra.  During her first staff meeting her breast pops out of her shirt.  Another favorite professional outfit includes long underwear and slippers.  Despite this odd behavior, she doesn’t get fired or, for that matter, committed to a mental institution.  The Beauty and Fashion editors openly sabotage Zoe’s work and yet they’re able to get away with their underhanded behavior because Dan claims firing them would disrupt the magazine’s re-launch.  The dumb-as-a-post Mental Health editor, whose advice columns are completely incoherent, manages to stay employed as well.  How any of these people keep their jobs when the newly designed magazine completely tanks and the regular advertisers desert en masse is a total mystery.   

I wish I could say that the personal side of the novel compensates for the bizarre professional one, but sadly that is not the case.  We know almost nothing about Zoe’s boyfriend Michael.  How they met or what he sees in her is a mystery.  Chloe is another character who doesn’t seem to be able to function in the real world; I can’t imagine an entire novel of her non sequitur ramblings.  When Zoe isn’t being irrational she is pompous and humorless.   

Even the book’s time sequence is confusing.  At times it seems as if only a day has passed and yet events seem to indicate that it’s been months since the last chapter took place.  The book fails to shed any light on the age-old issue of girls’ cattiness; if you want enlightenment on that topic I’d suggest reading Rosalind Wiseman’s Queen Bees and Wannabees or watching the movie Mean Girls.  Stephanie Lessing has experience working at Mademoiselle and free-lancing for numerous other beauty and fashion magazines.  She may have the background knowledge but she has a lot to learn about character and plot development.  Give Miss Understanding a miss.    

--Susan Scribner

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