Bitter Is the New Black: Confessions of a Condescending, Egomaniacal, Self-centered Smart-ass, or Why You Should Never Carry a Prada Bag to the Unemployment Office by Jen Lancaster
This is a book that depends almost entirely on voice as its selling point. If you like Jen Lancaster’s way of talking and her character, then you’ll like the book. If not, you’ll hate it. She’s over-the-top and bitchy, and downright mean at times. She’s telling off the world. I can see the appeal of her brashness, but mostly I found it annoying.
Much of the book is concerned with Lancaster’s almost 2-year job hunt. Some of the things that happened to her on that job search were definitely really shitty. I felt for her in those moments. I sympathize with almost all unemployed people and always assume it’s not their fault until proven otherwise. I believed that she worked harder and had better ideas than most people, but I’m sure I’m not the only reader who cheered when her abrasiveness bit her in the ass in her job hunt–she’d burned bridges all over.
I’ve said before that descriptions of high-end clothes and products aren’t my thing. Jen Lancaster is obsessed with them, though, so they’re name-dropped all over her book. It fit her character, and it was central to the conflict, but it still annoyed me. By the end, the book becomes pretty anti-materialist, as Lancaster looks at all of the stuff she’s bought over the years and thinks about how much money she spent, and what that money would have bought now, when she needs it for rent and groceries. That’s a good message. I just thought it was absurd how long it took her to get to it. This is a 400-page book, but it would have been better at 200-250 pages. Several side stories could have been cut: the wedding seemed like a side diversion, as well as the vignette about picking up a marathon packet for a friend and feeling like a big fatty.
Mostly, I just found her privilege incomprehensible and her entitlement grating. The way Lancaster insisted that she deserved all of the amazing things she had was deluded and childish. Toward the end, she talks about how she used to get her self-worth from her clothes and apartment; maybe if she could have shown us some vulnerability in the beginning, letting us know that this is all a mask for pain, it would be easier to sympathize. The closest we come is a story from her teenage years about getting made fun of in the school paper. Considering how richly she deserved to be mocked, it’s hard to take her side. Overall, her confidence is airtight and the book is worse for it.
Maybe my problem is that I just can’t understand anyone who makes discretionary purchases over $100 when unemployed. When you’re unemployed and there’s no income in sight, your wallet is on lockdown. One of the first thing Jen Lancaster did when she lost her job was buy new designer suits for interviews. Aren’t all the ones you wore to your old corporate job ok? When her husband loses his job on the same day that she’s rejected from a promising position, they go to the Four Seasons and spend $250 on cocktails. I guess I just can’t understand someone who does that, who’s so assured another job is coming that this choice seems smart. Even with Jen Lancaster’s legendary arrogance, I wouldn’t–couldn’t–do that, because to make that choice you have to have dumb trust in the universe. You have to believe that the world will recognize your brilliance because it’s an easy world to live in. And only truly privileged people can think that. I have many privileges, but not quite that many.
I didn’t really agree with her choice at the end not to take a job offer. I would have thought that after experiencing so much financial insecurity and turmoil, and living in a household without a regular paycheck for so long, she would take the chance to shore up her family’s position. After all, what if her husband lost his job again? They’d be back where they were before. She says she didn’t take the job because her values had changed, and now she wanted to focus on her writing. It seems to me that maybe her values hadn’t changed all that much. For writers, not having a day job is the ultimate privilege and status symbol. Only the best, most successful writers make enough to live on by writing, and Lancaster seems proud to flaunt that at the end. She even sends a note promoting her book to the boss that fired her. She’s still concerned with status and convinced she’s God’s gift to humanity; she’s just shifted to a different outlet: popular literature rather than the corporate ladder. It would have been much more humble and practical to take the job. If I’m really to be convinced she has learned anything by the end of this, such an audacious choice isn’t going to do it. In fact, it probably would have been more of a risk for her to have a decent, regular salary of her own, because then she’d always be tempted to splurge the way she used to. For Lancaster to stare every day at a full bank balance and walk past department stores without going in would have been like an alcoholic staring into a liquor cabinet. Maybe the truly brave choice would have been facing that temptation every day.