The Favorite Sister by Jessica Knoll (2018)

 The Favorite Sister is set, primarily, in the world of reality-TV and follows the rise and fall of the stars of a fictional show called, Goal Diggers. At its outset, Goal Diggers intended to be the first feminist reality TV show: following the story of four young, ambitious women who are working to make their unique ideas into million-dollar businesses. This show is not intended to be The Bachelor, with cat fights and backstabbing. These are women who will hold each other up, support one another, and not succumb to sabotage to get ahead.

However, as the show grows in popularity, the show creators see a chance to increase ratings by pitting the women against one another, creating conflict, firing stars who are too old for their demographic, and using manufactured drama to win fans. The ploy works, the show becomes at hit and its stars celebrities. But soon the drama and competition between the cast becomes all too real, and a show meant to hold up feminist women as role models for the new millennium, becomes just another venue for showing women that what really matters are looks, money, and fame.

Among the main narrators of the story are Brett, Stephanie, and Kelly. Brett is a gritty, tattooed, lesbian who rises to fame with a no-nonsense attitude and (apparent) disregard for the trappings of wealth. Stephanie is an African-American writer who is the elegant, calm, intelligent leader of the group. And finally, Kelly, Britt’s older sister who has grown more and more resentful of Britt’s fame and riches and has maneuvered herself on to the show, bringing with her ratings-spiking drama and deception.

As the book picks up speed, the characters start unraveling. Soon the years of lying, in-fighting, competition, and artifice begins to wear on everyone. Fights abound, friendships crumble, and — feeling that this may be there last chance to “win” — businesses are sabotaged.

Despite the fact that the story is interesting, it is also tawdry and out of touch, much in the same way that reality TV is. On the surface, Knoll has presented readers with a story that harshly criticizes the manufactured and manipulative world of reality TV; but she has failed offer an alternative to us. Every character is the book is selfish, cruel, and unlikable — there is not one person who stands to represents “real” women. Every woman in the book — from the precocious twelve year old to the aging octogenarian — is deceitful or desperate (or both) and more than willing to discard her integrity for money and fame…or at the very least for name-brand clothing and the envy of others.

While the story is sensational fiction, it is telling that there are no depictions of women in the story who seem like those in my life. Surely Knoll is not suggesting that any woman can be corrupted into be hateful and shallow with the smallest of promise of celebrity, money, or status? Yet that is what each character in the book does…shed her decency when presented with financial gain. In the book that is (at least attempting) to put forth feminist counter-arguments to the nature of celebrity worship, reality TV, and social media, the characters never live up to their own self-proclaimed ideals.

In many ways, the book is aiming to make money sensationalizing the sleazy and back-biting world of reality TV, just like the characters in the book. By failing to offer characters or plot lines that balance out the outlandish ones in the book, no real lessons are learned nor warnings sounded…and the result is a book that leaves readers feeling that the views of women are in no way furthered. We are being given the same stories as always about how — at our core –we petty, competitive, and looks-obsessed.

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The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman & Nan Silver (1999)

7+Principles

My husband and I married seventeen years ago, when we were just 22-years-old. We  both have always placed a high value on the quality of our marriage and we never shy away from examining our relationship to find ways to improve it. We still talk with great regularity about the highs and lows of our day-to-day life and seek out advice and ideas — such as those in Seven Principles — for making our marriage even stronger. Although this book is nearly 20 years old, the straight-forward strategies outlined in it are still as insightful and relevant as ever, largely because they are simple but effective.

Gottman & Silver do not argue that marriage should be without conflict, and they do not  think that fighting or complaining is necessarily detrimental to the overall health of a marriage. Rather, they argue, that having and handling conflicts– when they inevitably arise — in healthy ways can prevent long-lasting damage to the relationship.

Over the course of the relationship, the key is to build up the “balance of your emotional bank account…learning to turn toward each other, rather than away, can serve as a cushion when times get rough.” (80) How do couples learn to “lean into” their relationship? How do they make sure their are building a resilient marriage? They treat each other well.

Every day, thousands of times each day, a couple has a chance to strengthen their relationship: by valuing each other’s friendship; by taking an active role in each other’s lives; in setting and striving for common goals; by supporting each other in large and small ways; by recognizing the things that are important to the person you love; and by showing your partner that you value and treasure them.

That advice may seem simple…because it is. Taking care of the best parts of your marriage will “shore you up,” so when life gets challenging — a lost job, a new baby, an illness — your marriage already healthy and strong and able to weather the storm. And by downplaying the bad parts of your marriage (everyone has them) you do not let small resentments and petty grievances distract you from the common goal of having a long and happy relationship.

In the early chapters, the book details the things couples in trouble do and contrasts those with helpful things healthy couples do; to give readers a sense of how any situation can be steered in a positive way, easing the stress it puts on the couple. The latter parts of the book introduce the titular Seven Principles that any couple — faltering or strong — can implement to improve their marriage.

Making an effort to keep your marriage strong is one of the most important investments most of us will ever make in our lifetimes and it is worth a refresher course now and then to keep us on the right track. This book — like my husband — is a absolute gem!