Annabelle Gurwitch’s new essay collection, I See You Made An Effort, has a bright-pink pair of frilly granny panties on the cover. That more or less says it all: A book with panties on the cover, even granny panties, is trying to fit into a particular niche of the publishing market. Gurwitch is an able comedic actress and writer, and her two previous books have both had lives beyond print. Fired! became a documentary for Showtime, and I Say Tomato, You Say Shut Up, written with her husband, Jeff Kahn, is now a play.
This latest effort, a collection of musings on turning 50, is hilariously titled and well aimed; Gurwitch has noticed the hypocrisies of female beauty and indignities of aging, and is positioned to dissect it. But I See You Made An Effort is too scattered to be a real success, and though it is both insightful and funny, it’s not much more than a vanity project by a talented woman. This reads like a book that was published because it was “time” for the author to churn out another one. Some of the material is good, even great. The rest simply allows the book to reach an appropriate length. And then those panties were slapped on the cover, presumably to make Gurwitch look hip, savvy, and a little superficial. She may be all of those things, but she’s also more than that, and despite some strong pieces, I See You Made An Effort is just that—an effort.
In fact, the book appears to be a foray into middle-aged chick lit. I See You Made An Effort cites iPhones, yoga seminars, plastic-surgery procedures, and cosmetic brands with ease, in a way a romantic comedy might do so. And Gurwitch is a bit like the quintessential, winsome rom-com lead: She’s pretty but doesn’t know it, prone to speak first and think later, apt to fall flat on her face in public, all while being a warm and loving force in the world. The overall effect is nice to look at, but frustrating: The collection has a sensibility that is trying to handle the pressures of aging while female in Hollywood while also being hopelessly saturated in it.
The problem is that the chick-lit, name-dropping material in I See You Made An Effort falls flat. It lacks the vicious bite of Bridget Jones’s Diary and the introspection of Nora Ephron; instead, it has footnotes that cite studies and trivia, in an attempt to shoehorn as many buzzwords about the state of the baby boomers into as few actual words as possible.
The first three essays in the volume detail, in quick succession, a story about Gurwitch briefly crushing on the Genius at the Apple store; another about being gently manipulated into buying $200 moisturizer; and a third about going to an indie-rock concert with her teenage son. None of the three can quite find a voice. There’s a flippant self-loathing present, as well as a snarky tone that lapses into social commentary. But there’s no heart in them. They all seem, in fact, like material that was generated and placed at the front of the book to be “relatable,” “on-trend” and palatably consumerist.
It’s not until “The Scent Of Petty Theft,” an exploration of Gurwitch’s own feelings of inadequacy around wealth, that I See You Made An Effort really hits its stride. After that, the essays fall into place with several fascinating and at times rather dark stories. They don’t all revolve around a trip to a store and are far more illuminating as a result. (Though “Hollywood Adjacent,” one of the better essays in the book, uses the visit-to-a-store structure to great effect.)
The main problem here, aside from the attempts to make Gurwitch more marketable, is that her essay writing is little amateurish. This wouldn’t be so noticeable in stand-up, which relies on asides and situational establishment to provide the illusion of impromptu delivery. But with essays, sloppy editing or meandering structure stand out. These entries often start along one tack, then take up a digression, and then continue on a third thread toward an inconclusive ending that feels imposed by word limit rather than a planned exit.
Among the book’s highlights, “Marauding Through The Middle Ages” is the best in the bunch. It relies on Gurwitch’s natural storytelling ability and her mostly understated feeling of dejection to tell the story of being cast as an extra in a commercial that will never make it to TV. She is dressed as a crone, given a lit torch, and told to run across a slick cobblestoned roadway in the middle of the night: It’s all a bit demeaning, to say the least, and her telling exposes not just the desperation at the core of Hollywood culture but also Gurwitch herself. Her own complicity in Hollywood’s culture says more about her than she herself needs to. And for once, her voice finds itself: It’s dark and self-deprecating, but amused, too.
The other area in which Gurwitch really shines is when she writes about her own upbringing as the only Jewish girl in her Miami Beach high school with financially unstable parents. “Area Fifty-One” does this well: It’s not trying too hard to be liked—which is to say, it’s not making that titular effort. Instead, it achieves something more valuable: the ease of effortlessness.