Elissa R. Sloan’s debut novel promises an exploration of early-2000s pop and the long shadows of the entertainment industry that can linger in entertainer’s lives long after their career ends.
Cassidy Holmes, the title character, was the fourth member of pop girl group Gloss after placing as a runner-up in the reality singing competition Sing It, America–until 2002, when the group implodes and Cassidy “Sassy Gloss” Holmes drops off the face of the Earth. Years later, the remaining trio of the group, attempting to capitalise on nostalgia with a media comeback and film cameos, find out that their bandmate has died in apparent suicide. The narrative switches between Cassidy’s rise alongside Gloss and the fallout of her death years later, as the other members of the group attempt to confront their past twenty years in the spotlight–bereft with failed marriages, substance abuse, and tabloid drama.
Now. This book felt like it would be right up my alley, as a 90s baby with fond memories of the teen pop of the era (my parents will confirm that somewhere there is a home video of me singing and dancing to “Hit Me Baby One More Time”), and the perfect read for a year that has been making us all feel like, well, Britney in 2007. But the problem is that this book can’t decide if it wants to be serious or not, and this scattershot tone left me feeling deeply disappointed.
Cassidy is mostly a proxy for the reader–seeing everything through her young, naive eyes allows for an easy setup for exposition as she participates in
American Idol Sing It America and joins the lineup of The Spice Girls Gloss. As you can tell, Sloan’s attempts to invent a believeable narrative around this fictional band starts to falter as you can tell she becomes obsessed with liability and fair use–Gloss attends, I kid you not, the “Music Video Channel MVAs” after the debut of their first album. We get so many inconsequential details, about outfits and back-home friends, that detract from the plot. Cassidy gets lost in the shuffle here–despite the title, we never get much of a sense of her plot development besides the general knowledge that being a popstar is hard. The few difficult scenes in Cassidy’s narrative feel less like revealing the harsh truth of stardom and more like Very Special Episodes of a teen soap.
The contemporary narrative, after Cassidy’s death, is more compelling than the buildup, although it too can’t decide if it wants to a breezy, wish-fulfillment Hollywood narrative or a gritty look at the abuses of the entertainment industry. The three remaining members of Gloss are an interesting bunch–Rose, the de facto leader who has had the most post-Gloss success, Merry, who is struggling to reign in her teenage daughter, and Yumi, whose attempts to revive her career have fallen flat. Yumi is by far the strongest character here, but she gets fairly minimal time in the narrative, with the juicy tabloid secrets surrounding Rose and Merry presented as being far more worth the reader’s time. A few loose plot points, about Merry’s daughter trying to find out who her father is and the #MeToo moment for a former friend of the band, fall woefully flat. Quite frankly, I would have enjoyed this book much more if it just focused on Yumi–especially as her backstory revealed a strategic marriage to an athlete that went nowhere and struggling with racism as the only woman of colour in Gloss, and forced to play into Asian stereotypes with her Gloss nickname being “Tasty”. There’s a much more compelling narrative just in that alone! But for whatever reason, Sloan didn’t go there.
They all struggle with their response to Cassidy’s death, mostly because they themselves (and the media) see Cassidy as responsible for the group’s demise. Why? Eh… it’s all a little fuzzy. There is the fact that Cassidy replaced a fourth member who had to drop out for health reasons, and that she was the “angel” of the group who avoided many of the scandals the other members faced, even though they were often out of their control. But nothing is explored in-depth and these women mostly come off as needlessly cruel to a woman who has taken her own life.
These sections of the novel are mostly dominated by the group’s media tour for their film cameo and lots of flashbacks to fill in the gaps in Cassidy’s narration. There are little anecdotes here and there that allude to real-world pop star experiences, but overall I just finished this book feeling dissatisfied. Like many a biopic or a highly-engineered Behind the Music special, The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes felt like only half the story, without much to hold onto.
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