This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
Celebrity fare. It's pervasive and shiny. It's gossip and innuendo. It saturates what passes as news. And let's not blame the stars themselves; let us blame ourselves. If fewer people felt a deep need to know how long Julia Roberts meditates daily or how many broccoli florets Gwyneth Paltrow counts out for lunch, there might be so much more of the necessary, important stuff getting done.
Like working together to rescue Planet Earth.
Like teaching a child to read.
Like listening to the people we love with our undivided attention.
For her second book (the first being "MWF Seeking BFF"), Rachel Bertsche gives herself a celebrity-harnessed project, which she defines and redefines over the course of the book. Early on, it sounds like this: "to improve my overall existence — to go from unstructured scatterbrain to in-control, confident, happy, life-conqueror."
Bertsche, a happily married, Chicago-based 30-year-old with what she herself calls a rather ideal life, pursues that improved existence by fashioning her living after her celebrity faves. She wants Jennifer Aniston's body, Gwyneth Paltrow's kitchen, Sarah Jessica Parker's wardrobe, Tina Fey's work ethic, Jennifer Garner's marriage, Julia Roberts' serenity and Jessica Alba's pregnancy. She also realizes that her readers might not have time for the month-by-month self-improvement plan, and if they don't, she dedicates her last chapter to Beyonce, who has, Bertsche tells us, "the whole package."
Memoirs have gotten a bad rap in recent years for being self-indulgent, openly staged, glibly rigged. Too many "memoirs" are born of book proposals, it seems, as opposed to the unmediated tapestry of a real life lived. Too many neglect the musicality of language itself. Too few deliver personal stories that embody meaningful universal truths. Authors who embark on self-help memoirs have to work especially hard to escape the bad rap. They need to surprise us. They need to glance toward us. They need to convince us that their self-imposed hardships matter.
As adorable as I am sure Bertsche is in real life, as much as I rooted for her and her husband as they set off on the baby-making path (Bertsche's desire to have a child forms the second, not wholly compatible thread of this book), I struggled with "Jennifer, Gwyneth & Me: The Pursuit of Happiness, One Celebrity at a Time."
Perhaps it was the shifting sands of the memoir's actual purpose. "I want to know how close I can come to a celebrity life given my Joe Schmo constraints," Bertsche writes. Later: "I'm trying to celebrify myself." Further in: "That conundrum — how to be inspired by my muses without being disappointed in myself when I don't reach their levels of fabulousness — will likely be the crux of this whole pursuit." Throughout: a discussion of perfectionism, and whether or not perfect, as defined by a cocktail of celebrity traits, is achievable.
Perhaps it was the "research" Bertsche kept referring to, which seemed to consist, for the most part, of reading glossy magazines and typing Big Names into Google and watching reruns.
Perhaps it was that the conclusions Bertsche drew don't feel as deep or unexpected or helpful as they might. One example:
I'm enjoying the fruits of my labor so far — more muscles, less takeout, many more cute outfits — but it has come at a price. I've hit my vanity peak. Seriously, I've turned into one of those girls who can't pass a mirror, not even a window, without staring at her reflection. Are my legs improving? Is my outfit cute from all angles?
Perhaps it was that the workaday prose that made it difficult to see Bertsche's world — the face of her husband, the layout of her apartment, the kitchen where she begins to cook, the gym where she works out, the coffee shop where she does her writing — and, therefore, to fully invest in it.
Perhaps I simply wanted Bertsche to engage her clearly good heart and kind self in something a little broader or more residual than the project she crafted for herself. I'm rooting for Bertsche, her husband, and their new baby girl. I suspect that they are all pretty wonderful, precisely as themselves.
Beth Kephart is the author of "Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir," which won the Books for a Better Life Award in the motivational category. She blogs daily at http://www.beth-kephart.blogspot.com.
"Jennifer, Gwyneth & Me"
By Rachel Bertsche, Ballantine, 235 pages, $15 paperback