A Total Waste of Makeup by Kim Gruenenfelder

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HelenKay:  There are a never-ending series of lits out there – chick lit, hen lit and glam lit, just to name a few.  What separates one offering from another is a smart premise or an interesting voice.  If a reader is lucky, the author provides both.  In this light chick lit/glam lit hybrid, Gruenenfelder succeeds on voice.  She introduces readers to Charlie (Charlize) Edwards, a personal assistant to a Hollywood superstar.  With one ear attached to a cell phone at all times, Charlie struggles to deal with the wedding of her younger sister and a string of broken relationships – all in a flawed and humorous way that prevents A Total Waste Of Makeup from slipping from charming to silly. 

Charlie is having a rough year.  She’s a size 6 woman in a size 0 town.  She’s about to turn 30.  She’s saddled with an odd family, a wedding-addled sister and demanding, but surprisingly lovable and equally clueless, actor boss, Drew Stanton.  When all of these major events converge, she sits down and writes out her words of wisdom to future generations of Edwards women.  The initial idea is the write down the thoughts for her daughter but since marriage now seems a distant possibility, she decides to share her thoughts with a non-existent niece. 

Interspersed with narrative about Charlie’s dating, family and work life are pithy thoughts like:  "If you ask a man if he has a girlfriend, and his answer is, ‘No, yes, I don’t know," that means ‘yes.’ Or, at the very least, the woman he’s seeing has a boyfriend – him."  The story follows Charlie’s life for approximately three weeks during the period from just before the wedding and Charlie’s birthday to shortly after her sister’s Big Day.  The days pass by with the help of an ex-boyfriend, a  crush and a guy who she really wants to get to know, Jordan. 

Jordan, like everyone else in the book, has emotional baggage that makes an adult and committed relationship impossible.  Jordan has an ex who won’t go away.  Charlie has an ex who pops up at the wrong time.  Charlie’s friends are in the middle of turning current boyfriends to ex-boyfriends.  And, Charlie’s sister is dealing with her own set of ex problems on the eve of her wedding.  The result is a mix of subplots that ebb and flow with Charlie’s life but never overwhelm the main action. 

Gruenenfeld rises above "haven’t I read this before feeling" by offering a heroine to cheer for and a group of secondary characters who act like real people, making dumb choices, saying the wrong things and acting in a way that’s neither totally good nor totally bad.  A Total Waste of Makeup is fun and funny, sweet and at times sad.  The short time frame and large cast of characters prevents the story from hitting its stride in a first season Sex in The City kind of way.  While a comparison might be tempting – though unfair – A Total Waste Of Makeup doesn’t pretend to be another show or another book.  Rather, its aim is entertainment with a dash of common sense delivered in true chick lit girl-to-girl style. A little shallow on character and plot, maybe, but it succeeds on that level. 

If you want great literature, a real how-to on Hollywood or a book that will change your worldview, this likely isn’t it.  But, if you’re ready to climb into your pajamas and escape reality in favor of a little mindless girl talk, this is a book to read.

Wendy:  Manhattan is—among other things—the epicenter of fashion, publishing, Norah Ephron films (the good ones at least) and shoe loving chick lit heroines.  It is The City after all.  So what better backdrop for young urban women:  be they ladies who lunch or ladies struggling up the corporate ladder?  Manhattan is the ultimate, Carrie Bradshaw established that.  There are, amazingly enough, angst filled women and poisonous bachelors living elsewhere.  In the chick lit universe, they show up in San Francisco, London, occasionally in Boston and D.C. too.  But, Los Angeles, home to more than 15 million people, the country’s second largest metropolitan area?  Not so much.  And not so surprisingly.  Los Angeles has typically been difficult to define literarily: it’s vast, fractured, heterogeneous, and its culture isn’t the easily accessible cliché those outside of the Southern California reduce it to.   

With her debut novel, A Total Waste of Makeup, Kim Gruenenfelder offers a California girl chick lit protagonist, a native Angeleno, who’s tragically hip (even while being less hip than those around her), unlucky at love, and anxiety ridden about her approaching thirtieth birthday.  What Gruenenfelder doesn’t offer is a look at The City of Angels that is deeper than the glossy, trite expectations of those who don’t know the city at all.  Not everyone living in Los Angeles is in the entertainment industry.  No, really.  Take it in slowly, it’s the truth.  There are dentists and lawyers and mechanics and people who fix pot holes and bag groceries and accountants and any other sort of thing that needs to be done; those jobs actually outnumber the writers, actors and behind-the-scenes-people who make up Hollywood.  No, really.  But, to read A Total Waste of Makeup, one would hardly know that.  The heroine, Charlize (Charlie) Edwards is the personal assistant to mega-movie star and People Magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” Drew Stanton.  Her mother is a sitcom writer, her father is a set designer, her best friend Dawn is a MAC (model/actress), her other best friend Kate works in broadcast journalism.  The parade of men through Charlie’s life range from writer, to agent, to on-set still photographer.  The Hollywood setting does beget these characters, but this view of Los Angeles is myopic.   

Charlie is faced with—in addition to the milestone birthday, a job that is more work than career, and men who just never call back—the esteemed honor of playing maid of honor…to her little sister, Andy.  From these experiences, Charlie feels she has advice to offer, nuggets of wisdom to pass along to future generations.  Without the prospect of a husband or offspring, Charlie intends for the knowledge she has gathered to help out Andy’s future progeny, Charlie’s great-grandniece.  As Charlie deals with her divorced—yet friendly—pot-smoking parents she offers up gems like:  Our family isn’t crazy, they’re colorful.  On the topic of men she warns:  Don’t go out with a man just because he looks good on paper.  You’re not kissing paper.   Of weddings she says:  Bridesmaid’s dresses are supposed to be hideous.  Wear them anyway.  She dutifully writes down everything she feels is important, all the bits of insight that have carried to a point in her life where she doesn’t want to be: thirty and alone.

It would seem Charlie is alone because every man she encounters is a form of life lower than pond scum.  Dave, the man who has her sitting by the phone at the story’s opening, finally does call.  Unfortunately when he does, he’s drunk, it’s the middle of the night and then the two are faced with a morning after conversation in which Dave reveals that, yeah, he sorta has a girlfriend.  Tom, the writer Charlie meets in a bar, is witty and charming, but can’t stand the idea of a woman being more successful than him.  Doug, the agent who drips with pretension, is a fabulous kisser but treats people abominably.  Jordan, Charlie’s great crush, has the type of baggage intelligent women walk away from without the even the faintest urge to look wistfully back on (Charlie’s not that smart).  Then there’s Drew:  the movie star of Tom Cruise caliber; the slightly skewed celebrity who redecorates both his home and on-set trailer to suit his moods.  Besides the fame and wealth, what separates Drew from all the other men who walk into and out of Charlie’s life, is that he is the only decent human being with a penis in her acquaintance.  Most importantly, he’s the man who is just as lonely as Charlie is.

A Total Waste of Makeup is often humorous, but not truly funny because it is never truly original or organic.  What comes off as standard sitcom fare on the small screen does not play well in fiction.  When Andy’s upper-crust East Coast fiancé’s family meet the laid-back Edwards clan, Andy and Charlie’s cousin Jenn has her young sons practice a lie about the older Edwards’ pot smoking:  They both have cancer.  It’s very sad, the boys say.  It’s easy here to imagine moppet children with bowl cuts deadpanning this line followed by canned laughter and a pregnant pause before the adult actors deliver their next line.  But, this isn’t a sitcom and the illusion so easily conjured, pulls the reader from the story.   

Gruenenfelder captures a sliver of Los Angeles and the people who live there, but not the roundness and depth that are the reality. 

HelenKay’s Question:  As a California girl, is this a realistic view of life in Hollywood or just a shallow glimpse of life and love dressed up in a flimsy glam lit wrapper?

Wendy’s Response:  As a lawyer do you think "Ally McBeal" is an accurate representation of the practice of law?

HelenKay’s Final Thought:  A sometimes smart, sometimes sweet look at the life of an imperfect Hollywood personal assistant.  An enjoyable escape for those of us on the outside looking in.

Wendy’s Final Thought:  Yes, some days are A Total Waste of Makeup, and some books are better left on the shelf.

You can visit Kim here and purchase this book here and here.