In this thought-provoking novel, Sarah Selecky shines a light — equally scathing, mocking, and sincere — on the newest trends in “women’s wellness.” She analyzes the power and folly of social media driven, pseudo-spiritual lifestyles that demand from its (mostly female) followers slavish attention to living pure and a religious devotion on ones image.
In Radiant, our narrator Lilian Quick is a struggling artist living in Toronto who leans on social-media savvy, self-help gurus to guide her towards a better life. Despite being a believer in trendy diets and mantra-chanting, she still finds her business and personal relationships stalled out. Enter Lilian’s cousin, Eleven, a mega-star in the self-help industry, a woman making millions selling women a lifestyle brand that is one part feminism, ten parts consumerism.
Under the guise of empowerment, Eleven is asking women to invest massive amounts of money to adopt her pre-approved, quasi-Hasidic ways of living. She promises unimaginable returns of wealth, success, and happiness to followers who use her products and follow her prescribed routines. Followers will eat pure (vegan, gluten-free, sugar-free, non-toxic,) live pure (high-end organic clothes, pricey meditation-based exercise) and those who comply will be rewarded with enlightenment. In reality, these practices and purchases have nothing to do with personal growth or happiness, and Eleven’s lifestyle is, in fact, an almost comically oppressive way to live.
Eleven invites Lilian to work for her company and become a student of her self-empowerment program, The Ascendency, promising it will transform her into the highest version of herself. Lilian agrees and whole-heartedly embraces all the tenements of Eleven’s brand. Immediately, Lilian changes how she does almost everything in her life so that she is in sync with the company and its messages. Although she presents the “Path” to her followers as flexible and self-expressive, Eleven actually controls everything her acolytes (including Lilian) do: their ways of eating, drinking, socializing, relaxing, and thinking now must conform.
The deception lies in the masking of the true intentions of the program: the things being promoted seem natural and pure, making it difficult for followers to see that they are being manipulated to spend money on things they do not need and, in fact, do not work. Eleven’s Ascendency purports to be a revolutionary way of thinking. In fact it delivers the same culture messages women have been hearing for centuries: be thin, be beautiful, be youthful, be subservient…completely change yourself in order to conform.
The wonderfully crafted tension in this book is that women do (and should) want things such as passion, creativity, solitude, and spirituality. Women should support one another and should take risks and disregard the expectations of others. However, the Ascendency model offers its followers a grotesque commodification of wellness, one which is especially manipulative of women. Only when she bucks the program does Lilian see the “light.”