Lipstick Apology by Jennifer Jabaley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I loved this book. It's intense, poignant, bittersweet, wise and funny. It's also beautifully and subtly crafted, with all the elements - story, characters, style - combining to create a richly rewarding reading and emotional experience.
MC Emily's life is catastrophically and irreparably torn apart when her vacationing parents' flight goes down with no survivors. The discovery in the crash debris of a mysterious message from her mother - "Emily, please forgive me," insures that she will suffer the intrusive attention of the tabloids, as well as her more private feelings of loss, pain, grief and bewilderment over the meaning of that haunting lipstick apology. And as if that weren't enough to be getting on with, she is wrenched from her leafy suburban home, school and friends to live with her mother's younger sister Jolie, a Manhattan-based upscale makeup maven who, despite her veneer of sophistication and style, can hardly cope herself with her sister's death, let alone live up to being the adult in Emily's life. Emily is torn between her desire to be the new, made-over, over it and moving on girl, fitting into her sophisticated new prep school, and the haunting reality of her overwhelming feelings of abandonment, guilt and loss. And above all, she continues to be tormented by the need to understand why her seemingly perfect mother would beg her for forgiveness with her very last words.
I loved the way Emily's struggles are echoed in so many elements of the story. The contrast between the placid, pastoral river that flowed past her childhood home and the turbulent urban Hudson overlooked by Jolie's sleek but somewhat sterile apartment. The whole makeup/makeover motif, starting with the apology itself being written in lipstick, then showing up again with Jolie's business and the multiple makeovers Jolie gives Emily and her new friends - echoes Emily's attempts to cover, conceal and carry on behind a facade of normalcy. Then there's the theme of homemade food and baked goods (Jolie's kitchen is just a "closet for take-out menu's," with only Emily's mom's old apron gracing it with any warmth) as being a way of expressing feelings and representing home, family and authenticity. Even the two boys in the story seem to represent these poles of Emily's conflicting desires to confront or conceal, to paper over or to archeologize her grief.
Before it's all over secrets and lies will show their awesome and awful power. Emily will be tested, cruelly, and for me at least, almost beyond endurance. Things will never, ever be the same. But as Emily comes to acknowledge, life "is about crawling out from under the wreckage and rebuilding after disaster - making new memories and new families with people who fill our voids and make us laugh." Interestingly ,the word "wreckage" appears in the book only twice - once when the message is found, and once here when Emily begins, not necessarily to heal, but to perceive that healing might someday be possible (gotta love that search feature on the Nook!).
Emily ... my heart went out to her so much. She is not a perfect, wise beyond her years paragon - she's a real girl, sometimes superficial, sometimes hurtful and selfish, but so, so vulnerable, fragile but possessed of an inner strength that makes her struggles all the more affecting. Jolie is an awesomely realized character too, and it's impossible not to empathize and agonize with her in the weird and unexpected role and dilemmas she finds herself thrust into. The boys didn't do that much for me, but maybe that's a guy thing. And of course, the powerful presence of Jill, Emily's mom, looms large over the story. Even though she's absent you get a feel for her hurt, her humanity and her deep love for her daughter and husband. The city of New York is a character here, too, and despite my general lack of love for it, I acknowledge that here it adds to Emily's journey and growth. The recurring motif of When Harry Met Sally is fun, and provides a counterpoint commentary to Emily's boy-related feelings.
This is such a richly humane story of flaws, forgiveness and finding a way forward - really, I'm still kind of torn up. It's pretty rare for me to stay up late reading, unable to stop, anymore. This is that kind of book, and it kept me up way, way past any semblance of a sensible bed time (on a work night, yet!). It might keep me up again tonight, just thinking about it. This has been kind of a long review, but trust me, there's still much more to experience and enjoy here. Don't miss it.
"Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind"
Wordsworth, Intimations of Immortality
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