I was super excited about this book. I’d read Liza Palmer in the past and liked her books and saw the potential for her to write my new favorite book. The premise sounded interesting– a 40 year old woman turning things around at work, in her love life, and in her friendships and family relationships. The early reviews were mostly 4 and 5 stars and from reviewers whom I trust to approach the work of a familiar author with critical eyes. All that to say, I had very high hopes coming into this book and I’m not sure I’ve ever been quite as disappointed with a book as I was with this one.
Girl Before a Mirror is about Anna. Anna has just turned 40, is divorced and has been on a dating timeout for a couple of years, and works in advertising. She’s been trying to reshape her life– getting rid of toxic relationships and trying to go after what she really wants. One thing she really wants is a big, important account at work. She’s tired of getting no respect for working on ads for women’s products. She gets a great idea to pitch to Lumineux Shower Gel, to totally rebrand the under-the-radar item and get it into every woman’s shopping cart. She figures if this is a success, she has a shot at landing Quincy Pharmaceuticals, the parent company of Lumineux. Part of her ad campaign involves getting a romance novel cover model to be the man in the Lumineux ads. So off she and her younger coworker, Sasha, go to Phoenix to attend RomCom, the romance novel convention. In Phoenix, Anna meets Lincoln, a consultant in Phoenix on business and the two hit it off quickly, but while they find intimacy between one another easy, true commitment is another story. These events set the background to Anna’s journey of self-discovery, as she tries to remake herself into the woman she wants to be, free of the insecurities of her youth.
All of that sounds like a book I would have liked to read, but I did not like reading this book at all. The plot was very convoluted. The ad campaign made very little sense to me– its tagline was “just be” and it was supposed to be about women accepting themselves as is, and this somehow had something to do with romance novels and the male models on their covers. Anna’s relationship with Lincoln felt like instalove. They meet in the hotel bar, barely talk, then end up making out in the elevator, and suddenly they’re sleeping together and talking about their insecurities and thinking about love. All over the course of a couple of days. I don’t want to dismiss whirlwind relationships, but these are two very closed-off people with walls built up all around them. It was impossible for me to buy that they reached the level of emotional intimacy that they did so quickly and with so few interactions that weren’t just sex. In addition, most of Anna’s friend/work relationships seemed to suffer from the same feeling of false intimacy. Anna and Sasha declare themselves friends, but I didn’t really see the building of that relationship. They are working closely enough together that it seemed reasonable for them to become friends and they acted like friends in the end, but the close confidences and intimacies between the two happened before it felt natural for them to occur, especially with Anna being so afraid to let people in. On top of Anna’s work and her love life, there is a side plot about Anna’s brother, Ferdie, who ends up in drug rehab and both his problems and Anna’s issues all end up being blamed on their parents who just sort of magically appear as awful and absent people midway into the book.
All of these threads were going on and weren’t handled in way that made it easy to keep things straight… at times I felt like I was missing something– a chapter, a previous book, a conversation, something– that would have explained why Anna felt or acted in certain ways. The issue with her childhood and parents felt like it came out of nowhere. And there is a scene where she is rebuffed by the big name romance novelist for dismissing romance novels and for the life of me I couldn’t remember a time where Anna verbally dismissed romance novels. After all, it was her (and Sasha’s) idea to come to RomCom in the first place.
Palmer tries very hard to make important points about how society undervalues women– as consumers, as workers, as people, as readers. I nodded my head at most of these points– at how women’s products aren’t important advertising accounts, yet women are the ones spending money. How ads aimed at women talk down to them or try to make them feel inadequate, rather than trying to speak to them like equals worthy of great things. How romance novels or pop music are routinely dismissed as trivial or guilty pleasures, when there is value in stories about love and value in pleasure, no matter its source. But… as important as these points are, they felt out of place in this book. They are things Anna thinks or talks about, but they didn’t feel organically incorporated into the story. It isn’t necessary to have Anna say advertising is sexist because it is obvious from the way her bosses treat her accounts, for example.
I left this book feeling like I had read a first draft, like there was something to be fleshed out of this story, but it hadn’t happened yet. I generally enjoy introspective, smart chick lit and I feel like this was an attempt to be just that, but the lack of cohesion in the plot, the characters, and the deeper message left me disappointed.