Ellipses by Vanessa Lawrence: book review

Ellipses by Vanessa Lawrence 

Overview: Lily is working at a glossy magazine at the fever pitch of print capitulating to digital and influencers filling a hole journalists once held. All she ever wanted was to be a writer, but as her dream job gets less and less dreamy, she starts looking for other avenues. A chance meeting with a beauty mogul offers an exciting mentee opportunity for Lily, but her relationship with the eccentric Billie might actually do more harm than good. Overall: 4

Characters: 4 I like Lily and her girlfriend and friends that fill out her world. It's hard not to like Lily, though, as we don't actually know all that much about her. We mostly follow her career struggles as a hardworking but unappreciated writer. She struggles with self-confidence and taking the reins of her life, and she's at a career juncture that's hard to work through. There's a reason that Billie's decisive soundbites of advice are so appealing to Lily, a woman who seemingly doesn't know who she is at her core or what she wants. Her avoidance carries into her relationship with Alison. Despite having dated for two years, she's terrified to move in with Alison and further solidify the relationship because: what if she changes her mind? Throughout the book, Lily is forced to confront what she really wants from life and what she's willing to give up in order to get it, but these shifts are very small and subtle. You have to listen closely to pick up on her character development, and because we only see her from a real distance and through a very particular angle, it's hard to get too deeply invested in Lily. 

The rest of the characters in the book are about as filled out as Lily is. They're good for creating scenes that cause development, though. Everyone who works at the magazine is terrible, less a few allies that aren't powerful enough to make anything better. She clings onto a few friends from college that keep her grounded, and there is a nuanced depth in her relationship to Alison, who is drawn as Lily's opposite choosing a stable yet demanding job over her own passions. Billie is fairly flat throughout sending quotes that sound ripped out of every 2014 girl boss book ever published, but that seems intentional to allow Lily to project onto this questionable mentor. I wish we could've just gotten one layer deeper with everyone involved in this story. 

Plot: 4 The book is quite narrow in scope and repetitive, but that didn't bother me. I attribute a lot of this to the writing, but I can also see that Lawrence is trying to tease out a very subtle story, a realistic one where the epiphany doesn't come with a bang and the growth is incremental. That means lots of scenes in the magazine office, texting Billie and leaning on her for advice, and similar moments of strain between Lily and Alison. I find the world of New York magazines utterly fascinating, so I didn't mind that the book has so many nearly repetitive work scenes. I just get a kick out of living in that world even in my head, and it was particularly interesting to probe into what it felt like to be a part of magazines as the tide turned against the industry as a whole. But you have to be invested in the very small (even in the scheme of literary novels) personal stakes happening here or you'll likely question why you're still reading the book. It worked for me – I read the book in 2 days – but I could see how this would easily not be a lot of readers' cup of tea. 

Writing: 4 Despite wishing there was less narrative distance here, I really like Lawrence's writing. It's quick and easy to read while still having a clear craft quality and sentence level sense of reward. The effortlessness of the writing helps keep the pacing up so that you sail through the book and can't question the sameness of Lily's life across its arc too much. Also, even when scenes mimic each other, they're still well written and fun to read. The book skims over nearly two years, but it goes deep on particularly important scenes and moments that epitomize an era instead of giving constant summaries, which plays in the book's favor. There's a clear sense of quality that propelled me through the few bits of the book that flagged. 

minor spoiler about the ending: I also thought it was interesting to have Lily become an author and instead of revealing that the book you're reading is the fictionalized version of Lily's experience that she's writing within the book, her book is summarized as telling a story similar to her own with Billie but in the fashion design world. It flirts with the meta on many fronts but doesn't go all the way there. When you read about Vanessa Lawrence's career trajectory, the book already feels meta enough without her taking Lily's novel to the total extreme. 

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