The Book of Essie by Meghan MacLean Weir published in 2018.
“Esther Ann Hicks—Essie—is the youngest child on Six for Hicks, a reality television phenomenon. She’s grown up in the spotlight, both idolized and despised for her family’s fire-and-brimstone brand of faith. When Essie’s mother, Celia, discovers that Essie is pregnant, she arranges an emergency meeting with the show’s producers: Do they sneak Essie out of the country for an abortion? Do they pass the child off as Celia’s? Or do they try to arrange a marriage—and a ratings-blockbuster wedding? Meanwhile, Essie is quietly pairing herself up with Roarke Richards, a senior at her school with a secret of his own to protect. As the newly formed couple attempt to sell their fabricated love story to the media—through exclusive interviews with an infamously conservative reporter named Liberty Bell—Essie finds she has questions of her own: What was the real reason for her older sister leaving home? Who can she trust with the truth about her family? And how much is she willing to sacrifice to win her own freedom?”
The Book of Essie is like a crossover between the Kardashian’s and Little House on the Prairie, and I loved every second of it.
Six for Hicks is a reality show which follows the die-hard religious lifestyle of the Hicks family. All is well in paradise until Essie, the youngest of the many children, gets pregnant. Her overbearing mother and the producers of the show weigh their options to avoid a media disaster: should she put the baby up for adoption? Try and pass it as her mothers’ child? Abortion? Marry Essie off before the kid is born? The last option is deemed the best, so they begin to search for a suitable husband for seventeen-year-old Essie. Roarke Richards is chosen and given a significant amount of money for going along with the very publicized sham wedding. The book is written in the altering perspectives of Essie, Roarke and Liberty, who is a struggling reporter with a dark history of her own. As the story unfolds we learn that all three of our main characters have secrets that they’re not willing to bring to the light just yet. Also, the most pressing question for us readers is: how did Essie get pregnant?
This was such a quick and easy read, I finished it faster than most books I’ve read. It was fast-paced yet I didn’t feel like the story was racing by at a speed I couldn’t handle. This is the type of book that jumps right into the main plot, which I appreciate very much (not a big fan of novels that dawdle with a pointless backstory for a hundred pages). In fact, the first few lines throw us right in the deep end by saying,
“On the day I turn seventeen, there is a meeting to decide whether I should have the baby or if sneaking me to a clinic for an abortion is worth the PR risk. I am not invited, which is just as well since my being there might imply that I have some choice in the matter and I know that I have none.”
The tone for the rest of the book is set in these two simple lines. Beyond these sentences, the book does not waste time getting down to the action involving the marriage. The only thing that wasn’t addressed right away was the reasoning behind Essie’s pregnancy, and this builds some terrific suspense for when it is revealed.
I really enjoyed most of the presence of the character, and even if I didn’t like them personally, I could appreciate them from a literary point of view. Essie’s mother Celia, for example, while unlikeable, was placed in the story for a specific reason and Weir wrote her well into that role. Another aspect I especially liked was the relationship between Essie and Roarke. They had a comfortable chemistry build on the foundation that they both had secrets they’re desperate to hide, but even more desperate to share with someone else to alleviate the weight on their shoulders. Their relationship was like a breath of fresh air in the midst of a traumatic atmosphere and the friendship they end up creating in enviable for any young person.
I think Weir handled some touché subjects with ease, such as rape, incest, child molestation, and homophobia. In excess, these topics can grow to be unbearable to read about, but here the author sprinkled in little nuggets of hope and human decency that gave me the motivation to read on. It was realistic and yet also theatrical, given the nature of Essie’s life.
The Book of Essie gave an insightful look into the often-time hypocritical world of staunch evangelicals, especially those that advertise their picture perfect lifestyles. How deep down, it’s just a hoax to judge people that don’t fit your personal ideals. While this was portrayed well, I wish there was more detail surrounding the phenomenon that is reality television. For example, why was the American public so fixated on watching the Hicks’ every move? And do they really believe that everything they’re seeing is reality? These would be interesting questions to explore, especially in the age of the Kardashians and Jersey Shore, so the fact that these ideas were only hinted upon slightly disappointed me.
There will be spoilers in the next paragraph, so read on with caution.
The ending was satisfying and concise. It was a happy finale for our protagonists which warmed my heart after rooting for them for so long, and all loose ends were tied together quite nicely. The only thing that was missing for me was the aftermath of Essie telling the public she was raped. As we saw in the novel Beartown (and frankly, as we see all the time in real life), there are repercussions for women who come forward about rape. This impact on Essie wasn’t really discussed, at least not in-depth. Since Essie has such a unique outlook on the world, I would have loved to have seen this experience from her perspective.
The Book of Essie was a cleverly written coming of age book with likeable characters and emotional topics. I had the honour of following Esther Hicks on a one in a million journey through a life that she didn’t necessarily wish for, but made the best of when it came her way. I think most young girls should aspire to be like Essie (maybe not the pregnancy part, but definitely everything else in between).