Monday, August 20, 2012

Book Review: The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger

About a decade ago I was an avid reader of chick lit (I have dropped off a lot in that genre), and I also am known among my friends for having had more than a few crazy bosses, so everyone is always surprised when I admit I'd never read The Devil Wears Prada. Until now. And I really liked it.

To start with, it has one of my pet peeve chick lit tropes nixed: the girl in hunt for a man to complete her. Nicely, Andy has a boyfriend from the start, so that annoyance isn't a concern. Yes, there is an additional romantic complication, but that also makes for a nicely more complicated and less stereotypical plotline. That helps make up for the fact that it does have several of my other chick-lit pet peeves in spades: the protagonist is very early-20s, multiple roommates are involved, the setting is Manhattan, and the work setting is the media industry. That said, occasionally books are so good that they can be chock-full of pet peeves and I'll love them anyway (see: Blindness by Jose Saramego. Freaking fantastic book, but if I'd known much about it beforehand and hadn't been reading it to impress a guy, I doubt I would've gotten into it. But instead, it's one of my favorite books.) This is one of them. Lauren Weisberger is good writer and Andy is a good 3-dimensional character, although of course it's her boss, Miranda Priestly, who steals the show.

Not that there aren't issues. Andy's best friend Lily doesn't have much character development, and her boyfriend is also pretty flat (his main personality characteristic is being annoyingly nice). Miranda doesn't get a reason for being such a huge bitch like she does in the movie (in the movie, it's sort of explained that she does everything for the sake of the magazine which is her #1 love. I suppose that's obliquely implied in the book but never as overtly, and you more get the idea that mostly she's just mean.) Some of the best secondary characters like Nigel, only appear 3-4 times and just don't get the page time you'd like. Why oh why in books set in New York filled with broke young adults aren't they looking for apartments in Jersey City, Queens, or at least Brooklyn? But I really preferred the book ending. I'll try to be oblique so as to not spoil much, but in the movie I felt like at first Andy did understand that fashion does have some value, although perhaps not quite as much as Miranda puts on it, but it's also not as dismissable as Andy had first assumed, but then at the end she just gives in to her do-gooder boyfriend's sanctimonious bullshit (and in the movie it's even more annoying as he's a chef, not actually doing anything do-good at all, but in the book he's an inner city teacher who also volunteers so his do-goodery is much more there, although still quite annoying) and she just dismisses all that she learned at Runway. In the book, she does go on to have success writing, and it's also in a commercial arena which is nice (not The New Yorker, her ultimate aspiration), but she doesn't go completely in a 180, applying to work at a political non-profit like in the movie. So that one sour note for me was much improved. I also did like the way things ended with the boyfriend. I thought that was realistic and likely. And a good lesson for post-college 20-somethings about how things usually work out.

Another thing I didn't like was that in Ms. Weisberger's world, apparently everyone who moves to the South gets a hideous accent their first week or so (I was born and have lived here for 34 years give or take and still don't have one myself) and all of them, except for Andy's sister (who is a transplant after all) are tacky rednecks. Sure, there can be pockets of that, but the party for Miranda's brother in law features people from Charleston, a very savvy, worldly, and sophisticated city, who apparently act and dress like extras from Dallas (and no, not the modern remake, but the 1980s version). If you're going to use that particular stale stereotype, you should have the tacky Southerners come from the country, not a city, and particularly don't pick a city known for its culture and arts. I hope that did not ring true even for Northerners reading the book.

I am undecided on how I feel about the Lily sub-plot. I think it is an important lesson of sorts, but it seems like a distraction, and we never really got to know her very well. We were told a bit about her, particularly in the flashback scenes, but mostly she's just a sofa for Andy to crash on, someone to watch movies with, and someone who goes out for drinks too much. That doesn't distinguish her at all from millions of other 23-year-old young women in grad school.

I did have flashbacks to my own assistanting days, and am much relieved I never had to deal with anything like Miranda, although I thought my own bosses were unreasonable enough in their own ways. I believe one reason this book resonates so much with the pre-25-year-old crowd is that they believe (and this is the fault of the media, their professors and parents, and all of the rest of us for not presenting them with a reasonable expectation of the real world, particularly of the first 5-7 years of it) they will have interesting jobs straight out of college with responsibilities that will use skills they developed in school. That's laughable. Not only do pretty much all 21-25-years-olds end up (with good reason) in assistant positions with no real responsibilities that are filled with grunt work a monkey can do, but that's mostly what they're qualified for, and you will never, ever, find a job that uses skills learned while analyzing Shakespeare, aside from the job of professor. The assistant position is the modern-day equivalent of the apprenticeships of yore. As an assistant one learns the ins and outs of how a company (hopefully in their field) functions, they learn the back-office day-to-day doings including who the important people in the industry are (this is best and most easily learned by answering the phones), how to keep up with industry news, what the trends are and how to keep up, and so on. There's no way to come out of school knowing any of that, particularly for media, so while publishing houses teach this, they do also need someone to answer the phone and get coffee and open mail and water plants. Someone has to do it, after all. Does anyone have the right to be as demeaning or demanding as Miranda? Certainly not. But people do get away with it all the time, especially if they've been successful.

I found the book to be an easy read, quickly sucking me in and keeping me interested on my flight. It's the perfect airport read. I think all about-to-be college grads should read it, but they need to read between the lines for the real lesson: a simpler, kinder version of this tale is likely in your future. Be prepared, and be glad, as your boss could be so much worse.

I bought this book at a used bookstore.