Best Staged Plans by Claire Cook
I wanted to like this book more. I’m not dissimilar from the protagonist demographically. Like me, Sandy is pretty much post-kids, eager to downsize and move on to the unfettered child-free part of her life. I too have dealt with the monumental task of getting a big family home full of memories (and stuff!) ready for strangers to view. I understand the resentment from feeling as though I’m herding cats to get other people to work towards a supposedly common goal. I can also get pretty excited about decorating and paint colors.
The good thing about the book is that there’s enough plot and subplots that I wanted to find out how it ended. Was Josh cheating on Denise? What happened to her favorite pair of reading glasses? Why wasn’t Greg picking up the phone? It’s low stakes, but it’s a lighthearted book and low stakes were enough. I also liked some of the descriptions of the memories of their family life. The protagonist’s constant arguments with the GPS weren’t funny, but I give the author credit for trying.
The bad thing is that I absolutely hated the main character. I found her whiny and self-absorbed and incredibly shallow. She bragged about how amazing her daughter was yet didn’t seem to care about taking an interest in her daughter’s life, not bothering to understand the daughter’s career. At one point she’s talking about how her daughter gave Sandy a good bed in the guest room, but instead of gratitude it came off as “well, I’m glad you measure up to my high standards.” Having Sandy help the the homeless woman redeemed her somewhat at the end, but by the middle of the book I just got so sick of the way she didn’t seem to appreciate her affluence and good fortune. She claims that no one cares about her, yet she doesn’t seem to notice that her husband isn’t as excited about moving as she is. She claims no one recognizes her work, yet she doesn’t seem to notice when other people are also working hard.
There was also this weird feminist/anti-feminist shame thing surrounding cooking and homemaking. She loses her shit when she sees her daughter wearing an apron and cooking a stew from scratch, and yet she has numerous tricks to pretend that she has made something from scratch when she hasn’t. Her daughter pleads to “not let Chance eat take out every day” so the protagonist makes a trip to Trader Joe’s to get stuff to “assemble.” Because she’s good at “assembling” things to make them look homemade. Make up your mind, lady. Is cooking from scratch a valuable skill or not? Cook or don’t cook, but don’t wring your hands about it. Cooking can not be simultaneously a rejection of feminine rights and a fundamental female value. As a person who feels firmly feminist and yet makes every meal from whole ingredients, I found the anti-cooking thing off-putting.
This book had a fluffy romance vibe, even though the protagonist is not involved in a romance, because the men are cardboard paragons who remain calmly bemused when the women around them spin off axis. She stops talking to her husband for three days because he doesn’t paint the cabinet fronts to her liking, and yet when he doesn’t call her back, she’s horrified. She flips out when she has to live in the house with her son-in-law alone, and seems utterly incapable of making polite conversation with her host. Surely being good company is a basic skill that adult women should have acquired at some point? Josh, her employer (who is also dating her best friend) is also kind of blandly blase about everything, even when Sandy gets in his face about a woman he may or may not be seeing. I get that Sandy was unhappy, but surely you should be a bit more professional with your boss? I enjoyed that the women were fully-fleshed out characters, but they were mostly unlikeable, and they were mostly built up because of the comparison to the two-dimensional nature of the men. Gossiping, shopping, getting pedicures and engaging in petty vandalism are not the behaviors I aspire to. The fact that she didn’t even consider returning the glasses she stole made me tsk in disapproval.
I liked the renovation discussions, to a point. I disagreed with some of her choices. I would call a hotel “Chocolate” which makes me think of luxury and indulgence, not “hot chocolate” which makes me think of disgusting packets of artificially-sweetened powder with desiccated marshmallows in them. I don’t think that painting walls brown is edgy. There is no universe so conservative that painting walls brown is edgy. I got pretty tired of the endless product placement. It wasn’t “we stopped to get coffee and a sandwich” it was “I picked up a Grande Vanilla Latte and a bacon and gouda ciabatta roll from Starbucks.” It wasn’t “I picked out a lovely warm brown” it was “I chose Behr’s ‘Iced Cappuccino’ in a sateen finish.” The trip to Trader Joe’s read like an excerpt from their Fearless Flyer. All the endless product placements and unnecessary details about the things she purchased and what she ate just reinforced my feeling that Sandy was a totally shallow and materialistic woman whose only identity came from mindless consumerism. I felt like I am ten to fifteen years more mature than her, and I don’t yet need reading glasses.
I would like to read more books like this–fluffy and fun books about women in their fifties with simple characters and plenty of plot–but some of the writing choices and the unlikable main character hampered my enjoyment.