nonfiction book review: Anna by Amy Odell
I've always been intrigued by the world of magazines and editorial – the glamour that's marred by long hours and strong personalities and grueling steps to prove yourself. I've read articles here and there and fictional interpretations of that world but never anything as comprehensive as this book. This is a biography of Anna Wintour for sure, but more than that, it's a great overview of a specific lens on the evolution of media from its heyday to the trials of recessions and the bumpy road of transitioning from print to the web. Honestly, it's a bleak picture, and there isn't exactly an uplifting note at the end about the fate of the industry. This downward spiral of sorts runs a parallel narrative to Anna Wintour's iconic rise.
I don't tend to like biographies. They're often dense and struggle to find a compelling thread to offer the reader that emphasizes why this person is important beyond the titles they achieved. Mostly, if I'm reading about a person, it's going to be a memoir. But I was intrigued enough about Wintour's elusive figure that I decided I'd give Odell's book a chance. I'm so glad that I did.
What made the book so effective is that Odell pulls at threads that go beyond Anna. We're reading Anna's story in chronological order, but there's a larger world that's built around Anna that's totally immersive. Odell is never just regurgitating facts or statements from those close to Wintour, and that gives the book the impression of having larger consequences than just trying to crack Wintour's tough shell. I think the book was much more interesting for using Wintour as an anchor but not as something to chain it to.
One of the critiques of the book I noticed is that we don't learn much about Wintour's personal life or gain any insight into who she is outside the office in her intimate interactions. We're repeatedly told that she's a normal, kind, witty, humorous person at her house on Long Island and with her grandkids. Friends attest to her being caring and important figures to them, but of course, this is a book from the outside looking in. We don't see these moments in the same way that we see her being cold or sometimes callous in her complete decisiveness and aim towards her goals. That's the nature of this being a biography and not a memoir, and I honestly appreciated the way that Odell approached this with a respectful distance to her subject.
Knowing nothing about Wintour, it was fascinating to hear about how she leveraged the nepotism she had in the London publishing world through her father and the financial support she had into such a massive career. Few people with that kind of head start ever make it quite that far – as you hear about often in the chronicling of Ana's many failed assistants who had lofty pedigrees. I also appreciated seeing how her career took many zigzags before she landed in the editor-in-chief job that she's held for an impressive run. While there wasn't much that could be said definitively about how she was able continue rising when so many others with the same privileges sank, it seemed like her determination to simply be the last one standing was a strong contributing force.
Clearly, to write a whole book about Wintour, you have to find her important or worthy in some regard, and there's a certain interest or admiration that comes through in Odell's angle of telling the story. She does dig into the bad choices that Wintour's made throughout the year, and she isn't above offering a critique, but the book does put Wintour in a decently flattering light that still feels fairly balanced. I also did appreciate that in the stories that were less than flattering of Anna as a boss – a concept you're likely familiar with from pop culture and things like The Devil Wears Prada, even if you knew nothing about her – are caveated by the idea that the behavior was not right or okay but that male CEOs and people in leadership positions are rarely given flack for being brusque, direct, or a little ruthless. Sure, Wintour is apparently power hungry, but that's not something we generally critique in men (even though we should).
Odell is a talented writer and deserves all the flowers for this book. It was engaging, captivating, and immersive. I listened to the audiobook and figured it'd be a time filler I occasionally listened to on the train, but instead, I listened to it all day and then into the next morning to finish it as quickly as possible. She made Anna's life and the decades the book traversed come to life in a way that made this hefty book absolutely fly by. Also, props to the narrator who has a lovely British accent and did a great job.
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