The trouble with being a full-time, professional memoirist is that eventually you run out of memories. Endlessly energetic Chicago blogger-turned-author Jen Lancaster started her book career with a significant story: how she was laid off in the dot-com crash, and went from being a status-and-style-obsessed fashionista with a sizeable income and an equally sizeable shopping habit to being unemployed, desperate, and in debt. That first book, Bitter Is The New Black, came complete with a moral victory, as she finally started to examine her life and her priorities, or at least her spending habits. Her two follow-ups—Bright Lights, Big Ass and Such A Pretty Fat—maintained the bouncy, hilariously self-aggrandizing tone, but lacked the focus. Pretty Fat, in particular, while positioned as a weight-loss memoir, was less about weight loss than about the life of a cheerfully lazy, unapologetically overweight full-time writer reluctantly writing a weight-loss memoir. As Lancaster wrote about her experiences writing the book—and more often, about not writing the book—Fat all but swallowed itself whole.
Which is why it’s no surprise that Lancaster’s latest—Pretty In Plaid: A Life, A Witch, And A Wardrobe, Or The Wonder Years Before The Condescending, Egomaniacal, Self-Centered Smart-Ass Phase—heads in a different direction. Having run out of stories about her recent past, she heads back in time for a series of personal anecdotes very loosely tied together around fashion. In each new story, she makes a point of mentioning what she was wearing when, say, her family moved from New Jersey to “Cow Town, Indiana” and ruined her childhood, or when she went off to college, rushed at the popular sorority, and was utterly bowled over by the natives’ contempt. Sometimes the clothes are the story—particularly when she forges her mother’s signature so she can stock up on unearned Girl Scout merit badges—while at other times, they’re incidental background music. Either way, like all Lancaster’s books, this one comes with a massive mouthful of a subtitle, a perky pastel cover, and enough tongue-in-cheek humor to challenge even a chipmunk’s facial capacity. And as usual, the dashed-off theme and the fact that most of her anecdotes are light on substance are neither the point nor a problem.
Lancaster isn’t kidding in the title—in her previous books, she’s a condescending, egomaniacal, self-centered smart-ass, and while she occasionally squirms just a bit under her own self-examination, or under the judgments of others, part of the evil glee of her work is that she’s utterly comfortable with herself and her self-righteous conviction that she’s the center of the universe. Unlike the tiresomely weak-and-watery chick-lit heroines in the Devil Wears Prada mold, Lancaster is brassy enough to not care whether she’s holding herself up to ridicule. But while her smug façade rarely wavers in Pretty In Plaid, she shows an unusual vulnerability. This time, her writing style is more invitation than armor: While still engaging her hyperbolic self-confidence, she nonetheless lets readers laugh at the kid who demanded lobster and was horrified at the rubbery giant bug that wound up on her plate, or sympathize with the bullied teenager who unthinkingly went to school wearing bold-print Bloomingdale’s panties under not-opaque-enough white pants.
Compared to Lancaster’s last two books, Plaid tells more intimate and more engaging stories: Instead of blogging her day-to-day life in book form, she’s cherry-picking through decades of incidents, looking for the best and brightest. Granted, there’s a slight sense of desperation, as she struggles to find new memories to harvest so she can maintain the indolent writer’s lifestyle she’s so often said she loves. But there’s also every reason to wish she never does run out. In a woman’s world full of unrealistic body expectations and nonstop judgments, it’s always fun to completely cast off self-consciousness and spend a little more time behind Lancaster’s stylish rose-colored glasses.