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Tuesday
Jun012010

Book Review: Helena Andrews Has A Quarter-Life Crisis In "Bitch Is the New Black"

“Bitch Is the New Black: A Memoir,” Helena Andrews (Harper Collins, $24.99)

Being a bitch or labeled as one is something that often – whether rightly or wrongly – sticks. Meaning, if you self-appoint yourself queen bitch supreme out of confidence or someone else gives you the title out of malice it may become the only prism some will be able to view you.

Before I met author Helena Andrews or read her first book “Bitch Is the New Black,” I’d read criticism from individuals who thought she was a bitch in the pejorative sense. A profile on herself and the book had already run in The Washington Post and while some enjoyed it, many others loathed what they thought Andrews represented.

Critics argued there was nothing celebratory or novel about a black woman being a “bitch” and unceremoniously lumped her into the common stereotype of the “lonely, successful, single black woman” who was single because of her own failings.

But “Bitch Is the New Black” is not a primer on dating. Nor it is an ode to singledom. It is a memoir, chronicling Andrews’ life up to the age of 28 as she worked to pursue a career in writing. The title was taken from a popular Weekend Update sketch from Saturday Night Live in 2008 where in defense of then presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, actress Tina Fey proudly shouted “Bitches get stuff done … Bitch is the new black!”

Yet the first four chapters don’t fit the cavalier, trendy title. They are heartfelt, raw, emotional essays about love and loss. They’re about men you love hard who let you down. They’re about racism and intolerance. She’s at her best when she writes about being kidnapped by her grandmother as a child because the woman thought her mother, Frances, was going to sell Andrews to a child trafficking ring. She writes humorously about what some would consider a “non-traditional” upbringing, as she was raised by her black, Lesbian, “hippy” single mom in the mostly white town of Catalina Island, Calif.

These initial chapters are very funny and compelling. You can feel her loss and pain when she is suddenly separated from her mother and you rejoice when they are reunited again. You reminisce along with her (and root for her) as she hopes a VHS recording of Keisha Knight Pulliam’s made-for-TV film “Polly” will show her white elementary school classmates that there is more to black people than just stereotypes. Andrews spouts forth fully formed and three-dimensional -- frank, but funny. Like someone you want to share jokes. A girl-woman you want to hold and tell that things will get better.

But the energy that makes the first chapters so strong does not remain for the rest of the book. Only showing up in spurts in certain stand-out chapters. Something odd happens as Andrews crosses over from child to adult and suddenly the bitch title seems a bit more apropos – albeit perhaps not in a way she intended.

There is a point early in the book when a former long-time girlfriend of her mother criticizes how she is raising her daughter. She shrieks that Frances is raising Andrews to have no feelings. And what seemed cruel and jarring in that early chapter slowly turns into an ominous cloud that looms over the rest of the book.

As Andrews gets stuck the weeds of adulthood, the stories lose emotional heft and details are relayed with little introspection, sometimes devoid of empathy. Attempts at humor sometimes turn from charming to mean as Andrews makes gross generalizations about the individuals she encounters, usually offering little evidence or character development to back up her claims.

The person who catches the worst of Andrews’ use of ad hominem is an anonymous black female interior designer she worked for as an administrative assistant when she was in her early 20s. Even though she never names her, in a chapter titled “A Bridge to Nowhere,” it is readily apparent that the person in question is well-known interior designer Sheila Bridges.

An email and phone call to Bridges confirmed that Andrews was once in her employ, although Bridges admitted that she didn’t remember Andrews very well and that she only worked for Bridges a short time before she was fired for improper conduct. As for Andrews, she could not confirm or deny that she was writing about Bridges.

Andrews claims that her boss was a sociopath, emotionally detached, sexually frustrated and a “fucking psycho.” Upon seeing the once curly-haired Bridges bald due to Alopecia, Andrews relishes it as a form of perverse revenge. This, despite the fact that Andrews openly admits in the book to struggling with many aspects of her job, was disinterested in design and that she spent a lot of work time searching the Web or chatting on instant messenger.

As an example of how “difficult” Bridges was, Andrews reproduces this note:

“As you know, I always call in several times a day for my phone messages, even while I’m in production. Yesterday afternoon my mother called the office to let me know that she and my father had arrived safely home from their trip. Who spoke to her and why didn’t I get the message? I didn’t get this message when I called in at five or five thirty p.m., and it was not included in anyone’s updates.”

Then Andrews writes in response in her book:

Your mother hates you! Why do you care whether or not she made it back okay? And who even cares about stuff like that? This isn’t the 1800s. Cruise ships don’t get lost at sea. Plus, it wasn’t me who took the message.

Others get similar treatment. A South Carolina woman named Rayetta is deemed unworthy for an interview about future President Barack Obama even though she drives Andrews everywhere. Andrews assumes the woman is uncultured only to learn that she was served hors d’oeuvres by future First Lady Michelle Obama. She feels guilty for a moment, but quickly moves on.

Later in the book it is President Barack Obama’s “body man,” Reggie Love, who gets a bit of a literary kick to the shin when Andrews recalls their blind date. She labels Love as having a “do it to white girls” vibe, but offers no explanation why she felt this.

She also writes about lovers past and present, but they wind up feeling more like ghosts than people. You never get a sense for who these men were, not even “Dexter,” who she pines for throughout the book. He’s merely a guy who liked her enough to share her bed, but not enough to be faithful or make Andrews his girlfriend. Telling her she is “Perfect Girl” and too good for him one moment, then slobbering down some anonymous woman in a nightclub the next – Dexter is every man and he is no man at the same time. You never really understand his motivations or appreciate why Andrews loves him.

Bridges may have been a bad boss, Rayetta may have been uncultured, Love may possibly prefer the company of white women and Andrews’ beloved Dexter may have failed her because she was too “perfect,” but in the end, she offers the reader no evidence. All background players remain underdeveloped and unexamined. She declares them all either too hot or too cold, but never reads you the temperature. You just have to take her word for it.

As a whole, what Andrews produces isn’t a Tina Fey-ish tome of how “bitches get stuff done,” but the much uglier reality of how bitches complain, bitches struggle, bitches doubt, bitches make excuses, bitches stereotype and bitches act entitled but still succeed anyway. This doesn’t mean that you won’t find the book entertaining or funny (it’s a quick and easy read), but she misses out on the opportunity to create something with a bit more weight. Perhaps the screenplay based on the book she writing for Grey's Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes will provide for richer character development.

Andrews is a talented writer. The beginning of the book is incredible proof of that. But there are times when she comes off as very ungrateful. She quickly points out in the book that her stories of unhappiness and frustration in the workplace are proof she paid her dues as if she already anticipates that this might be the first thing potential readers will question. She doesn’t write much about her accomplishments at Politico or as a news assistant at The New York Times. She doesn’t give you the chance to root for her successes as she did in those early chapters. What you get is an undercurrent of annoyance that she ever had to do these jobs at all. You want to grow and learn with her, but upon reading it you get the impression that she adopted a defensive stance in the face of criticism, choosing mockery and wall-building over personal development.

The result is a book that is mixed. It is at times witty and sharp and at others superficial. She goes deep on some issues (abortion and abusive relationships), but only skims the surface on others. Towards the end she wonders if her success is getting in the way of romance, but the book reveals that the common denominator in her disappointments is her attitude and the pride to which she exhibits it. On some level, after reading the book, you feel she may realize this and be mournful, but on another you think maybe she does know and doesn’t care. Bitch may be the new black, but bitch also sounds kind of lonely and little counter-productive.

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Reader Comments (26)

I haven't gotten past the first 5 chapters yet, as you know, but I will finish it eventually, mainly because of your encouraging words from dinner on Sunday :) Your review was honest and not scathing or filled with personal attacks that most ppl offer when doing book reviews. You are not a bitch..be thankful :)

First off, I must admit that I have no desire nor intention to read this book. That review was awesome, you should write Cliffs notes, If only they had that emotion....I would have done a lot better in college. Anyway, your take on her sounds very familiar, I feel like I have met her a million times before and I see her in a lot of these "Black-Successful-Lonely" crybabies who seem to lack self-awareness and cannot for the life of them understand why nobody wants to wife em' up.
Her spot in the Washington Post has sparked so much debate and spawned tons of those "alone with 14 cats" discussions leaving many puzzled, but the answer is in the book, judging from your take on it. Black women have been carrying society from the bottom of society ever since black people were brought to this country, beneath white men, white women, white children, and black men, in that order but through it all, Black women have survived. Even in a post slavery, civil rights era, We black folks still stand up for an R. Kelly rather than the young girl that he victimized WITH video evidence. "She got what she deserved! Thats what she gets for being too grown! She was old enough to know better! They are always trying to bring our successful black men down!".... That is a heavy burden to bear and it should be expected that some women would choose to detach themselves and become cold and synical as the years roll by. The sad part is, after weathering all of the trauma and disfunction to make it through to the other side and become successful, she is not free. Chicks have to learn to let go and not let the drama harden you but rather allow it to make you a more empathetic, intelligent, insightful, determined and compassionate human being. Otherwise, it wasn't worth it. Did blackfolks really come this far to revel in being considered a "Bitch"

June 1, 2010 | Unregistered Commenternovanova

Agree with previous two posts and kudos to Ms. Belton for an even-handed critique of Andrews' memoir. She clearly 'roots' for the author and almost seems disappointed when Helena takes to finding fault in others rather than looking inward for her lack of success in various arenas. Something about the Bridges characterizatration seems transparently self-loathing. From what I can tell, the designer's greatest flaw was giving this disinterested, unappreciative young woman a job. It's as though Andrews has an image of a sad, frustrated and lonely future self she wishes to project on others which, ultimately, proves to characterize who she is now better than anyone else!

June 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterOutdoor Poet

I have not read the book, yet I watched the explosion at WAPO when the profile ran.

Ms. Andrews seems like many privledged, attractive, comfortable WW I know. She has a narcissism that usually comes with a level of physical and financial comfort. She has had access to a good education, she appears well employed, has some talent in a field in which she seems to be able to find work. So she is ahead of about 90% of folks.

That to me is not a bad thing. There are all classes and all manner of BW even those of lesbian, hippy moms.

I always thought the reason why people wrote memoirs in their 20s was so they would have something to make them burst out laughing at 50! :-)

June 1, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterknockoutchick

i agree with the previous post...memoirs are best left to be written later in life...from your analysis, this is probably what the first 5 chapters were so good...

June 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSmithie

not that i'm going to read it, lol.....but i think it's a good synopsis. some folks feel entitled. women who relish being called a bitch often are just to be called one.

June 1, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterswiv

"bitch also sounds kind of lonely and little counter-productive."

there it is. being angry and mean doesn't mean you're strong. it just means you're angry and mean. and likely insecure and lonely.

June 1, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterswiv

Saffire, this chick, whoever is next, who cares?

June 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterWenzel Dashington

Great review. I didn't plan on reading the book when you did the first part I was like "Maybe I'll give it a shot" then I read the rest and was like eh nevermind.

June 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRainaHavock

that WAPO article made me actually not want to read the book and from reading your review my perception of Andrews was about right. I read some of her stuff on the Root, I just don't find her particularly interesting or a talented writer. I have read way more interesting black women bloggers, hopefully some of you will be getting opportunities for book/movie/tv writing.

All these black women writers, these faux black Carrie Bradshaws are starting to bore me. Where is our generations Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. I don't think you have to be that old to write a memoir, you have to be either really interesting or really funny Angela Nissels memoir Mixed was hilarious but I think she did stop the story around when she graduated college.

June 1, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterpoliticallyincorrect

I certainly don't think one has to be old to write a memoir. Yet age does bring some perspective.

Part of what I was hinting at was that in our 20's we are often still consumed with narcisstic behaviors, which can certainly make for good reading yet with age, if we are lucky we can make room for others.

I am sure 10 years from now when she has her own assistant, who thinks she is a drag, it may not be as entertaining for her. Yet that will be another book!

June 1, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterknockoutchick

Great review, and great analysis.

June 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMac

"When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years." ~ Mark Twain

Really, no one under thirty-five should write a memoir. And no one over that age should seriously consider reading such a one.

June 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLisalisa

That was a really great review and provides an honest critique of the author and the book. I have to say though, after reading the Wa Po article I was not interested in reading this book and after reading your review I'm even less interested.

I'm a little tired of the general assumption that all successful and smart black women are bitches and had to be mean and nasty to get where they are, making them incapable of finding a man and lifelong mate. I think Helena needs to do some self reflection to really understand why she is a self proclaimed "bitch" and what exactly got her there. Plus I'm always weary of women who proudly call themselves "bitches". That almost seems like a cop out or excuse for not being able to find a way to be assertive when necessary without being mean. It is a ploy to cover up hidden issues and anger that has been taken out on others.

Over all I just don't think her book provides any real insight into why there are indeed a good number of single professional black women. It's more a story about her own issues but I don't really think even she understands what got her where she is emotionally.

June 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAri

Fantastic review. TY. Very balanced.

June 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnanda Leeke

I'm glad I read this review. I was so excited to go out and purchased the book but after reading this, I'll wait for it to make it's way to my public library. Thanks for saving me $17.99 + tax.

June 2, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterajr

this book review and critique is why I love you so, Snob. You rock! You rock hard!

June 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDNLee

Great review. I hope she matures as a person and is able to accept the love she so desperately wants.

June 2, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterthelady

Thanks for the review. I was thinking of buying the book. No longer.

June 2, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterrikyrah

Great, balanced review. We all know how to be young, Black, successful, single women. Where are the books and blogs that celebrate young Black love?

June 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDorothy

@LisaLisa:

Hear, hear...

June 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMonica

I read it over the weekend, your assessment is spot on but I don't think that makes it a less interesting read. I didn't expect it to be self reflective and I didn't expect her to address her issues. A book doesn't have to be therapy. I recognized a lot of myself in some of her essays, or should I say my much younger self. Yes her boss was written as a complete psycho but she readily admits she was bored with her job. What college grad wouldn't be bored as a glorified receptionist. She probably took that job because it was post 9/11 and she had a degree in English. Does relishing in the misfortune of others make her bitch, probably, but I do this on a regular basis to make my day function a little smoother. I also didn't get any feelings of entitlement from her stories. I graduated from an Ivy where I met self-entitled people of all races so maybe that's why this seems "normal" to me?

I personally don't like everything to be spelled out and neatly presented, I don't need her to have eureka moments. She included two essays that touched on her lack of emotion, I think the reader has to take it from there. She's obviously guarded and hasn't gotten to a point where she is going to divulge herself entirely to public scrutiny and I don't blame her. I didn't want her to become this self aware person for the sake of pleasing her readers, it would seem too contrived. I think she ended it perfectly, she's still growing. Aren't we all?

June 7, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterhypnotic

@Dorothy they are called romance novels

June 7, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterhypnotic

I'd read your review before I got my copy from the library (I refuse to shell out money for it) and agree with you. However, the first chapter made it a pain for me to read with all the cursing and profanity. (I've seen interviews with Helena and she seems pretty well-spoken, so why the profanity?) I actually got back into it in the chapters about her childhood and her mother, but she lost me again when I read the chapter about Sheila Bridges. (Why say names are changed to protect people's identities, but make it that blatant to figure out who it was, especially with the word "Bridge" in that chapter's title?!)

Helena seems so bitter and angry and she thinks everyone else has problems except for her. She says she has "friends," but does she really like anyone other than herself?

I'm at the chapter where she goes to SC now, and I won't be looking forward to reading about her classist behavior towards Rayetta.

June 23, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGolden Silence

I agree with other commentators - your review rocks!! I enjoy reading your site. I have no intention of reading the book but still have opinions. *sue me* In a recent video, Andrews comments that her initial thought was to write a book about her childhood. http://bit.ly/dDowAw (7:30 mark) Based on your review it seems like that *might* have allowed for more character development. I hope the movie is better than the book.

August 18, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNot a Bitch

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