While she's not the most conventional Mormon, Elna Baker's religion colors just about every aspect of her life... whether she wants it to or not. Sure, there are lots of moments where you might be able to put aside the issue and think that she's like any other funny girl recounting anecdotes from childhood and her young adult years. After all, Elna's got a crazy dad who scared the crap out of his kids after tricking them into believing that aliens had arrived in the form of Dairy Queen treats. Her parents paid a Moroccan rug weaver to use their kids for child labor. Her mother sent her off to college with a warning against making out with lesbians. Elna then did make out with some questionable fellows for the sake of feeling like she's seizing her youth. She ruined a family vacation by being self-involved and pretending to faint from low blood sugar. She nearly had sex with an actor who isn't Warren Beatty but whom she refers to as Warren Beatty for the sake of hiding the identity of the real actor. I mean really, haven't we all? But if you think that you'll be able to forget that she's a Mormon, think again. It will always come back to be a major focus. It frequently puts Elna in awkward or painful situations, but just trust that it's actually a combination of her faith (and culture, one could certainly argue) and clear perspective that has probably helped Elna be as funny as she is. (Case in point: a particularly hysterical and painful essay on her tenure at FAO Schwartz when a particular baby doll became the Christmas must-have toy and the store ran out of white babies, leaving parents to struggle with politically correct language as they asked for babies with the acceptable color skin and the option of buying the white sample baby with malformed body and flippers for hands over babies of other ethnicities.)
What helps make Elna funny is that she is her own worst enemy. If something is going wrong for her, it's more than likely her own fault... and rather than lament this, she has no problem laughing at herself and asking us to join in the fun. (An excellent example of this is when an attempt to get the cool guy in school to kiss her resulted in a gash on her head and a maxi-pad was taped to the wound.) Despite being incredibly naive at moments, she also has an impressive bullshit detector when dealing with others. (I'll note that its this perspective which often makes it hard to believe that Elna totally accepts the Mormon religion and its many unique tenets when she seems so level-headed otherwise... but this is a non-Mormon talking.) While she notes that most Mormons are known for saying "no" to things, Elna makes it a point to live life to the fullest and say yes to as much as possible (just not drugs, alcohol, sex, or caffeine). The result of living life like this is that Elna either scores big (crashing a 7-11 conference and getting free tickets to their booze cruise) or she fails spectacularly (the stupendous homemade fortune cookie costume that got slightly bent and ended up making her look like a giant vagina on the way to the annual title dance). No matter what, even if one does occasionally want to smack her upside the head, the reader is always in her corner, hoping that Elna will be happy and find love (though subversive readers like me and most of my book club were hoping that the whole "find love" thing went hand-in-hand with abandoning Mormonism... more on that later).
The other major issue for Elna in this book is weight -- for most of her life, Elna was a "big girl" (weighing over 200 pounds) and it isn't until after moving to New York that she decides enough is enough and she will commit to a change. She sees a doctor who provides her with a diet and exercise regimen (along with "vitamins" that turn out to be a drug like Fen-fen) and manages to lose 80 pounds in record time. She suddenly becomes the thin girl that she's always wanted to be -- but she's still an insecure fat girl in her mind, which always seems to rear its head, even after her miraculous transformation. (And let's not forget that she also attributes her weight loss to a miracle of God helping motivate her through the process... until she realizes that her miracle is due to the drugs the doctor put her on.) Nonetheless, her triumph is heartwarming because even if one laments a culture where people feel they must be think, at least Elna seems to be doing this for herself and not anyone else. In addition, her own reaction to her transformation is fascinating as she chronicles the highs and lows -- including a brutally honest admission that she got irritated with her family for still referring to her sister as the beautiful one when Elna felt she should have made some headway. (As a child, she remembers a man offering to trade their father one thousand camels for her beautiful elder sister Tina and, when refused, he suggested one hundred camels for Elna. "Nine hundred camels, I thought. There is a nine-hundred-camel difference between my sister and me? The rest of my life can be described as a pursuit to be worth more camels.") It also leads to uncertain territory as Elna realizes the weight loss can really be attributed to the drugs (Mormons don't like drugs) and then she starts to contemplate cosmetic surgery (to remove the excess skin that resulted from her dramatic weight less). Given the rules laid out by her faith and culture, Elna is repeatedly put into situations where decisions must be made and she lays everything on the table for the reader.
It's the honesty that makes the reader sympathize with Elna in her essays; she's never one to sugar-coat her actions, though one does get the feeling that she'll never be an essayist like David Sedaris who risks alienating family for the sake of a laugh. (Indeed, in my book club, we laughed about how certain Elna stories started out like Sedaris stories... such as when her parents take the kids to the airport and challenge their kids to find the cheapest fare for their weekend destination. In an Elna story, this was a family bonding experience... something charming and exciting that we wish we could have experienced ourselves as children. In a David Sedaris story, this would have been faux character building exercise as the parents toss the kids on a plane and then drive away to have the weekend to themselves while the kids are left to fend for themelves in a foreign country, cobbling together bits of languages to buy food and somehow negotiating a drug deal.) The novel starts out with one of the best dedications I've ever seen... a note to her parents, thanking them for helping her become who she is. "This book... aside from the nine F-words, thirteen Sh-words, for A-holes, page 257, and the entire Warren Beatty chapter... is dedicated to you. You might want to avoid chapters twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three anything I quote Mom saying, and most of the end as well. Sorry. Am I still as cute as a button?" Her candor becomes endearing as you realize that she wants to be loved for who she is and somehow this gives her the courage to tell the whole story exactly as it happened, mistakes and all.
While the weight issue is important for Elna, the really central thing to Elna's life and the book is her religion and the role it plays in her life. I did mention that God is pretty prominent in every situation, but when it's Mormons... well, if you're anything like me, then you're immediately on the look-out for crazy. Elna is insistent that Mormons aren't nutjobs with multiple wives who worship golden cutlery and dance around in magic underwear (or at least not all of them?). It isn't her objective to convert anybody or even get the reader to understand and accept Mormons as totally normal people, but she is constantly encountering people in New York to whom she feels as though she must explain and defend her religion. (I would probably be one of those New Yorkers, but I should hope I'd be polite not to joke about her faith to her face, but rather, use the opportunity to ask questions to try and understand it all a bit better.) The thing that makes this a bit difficult is the fact that Elna really isn't your standard Utah Mormon. She didn't attend Brigham Young University and she never lived in Utah until she practically forced herself into a relationship with a Mormon guy and she desperately tried to hold on to it, even though she knew it wasn't right. Elna grew up traveling the world with her family; one of her best friends is flamboyantly gay; she dates outside of her religion. She didn't get married at eighteen (and even in her childhood predictions for herself and her friends, she was the late-bloomer who married at the ancient age of twenty). She understands why certain things are funny and has no problem making a few jokes about what her faith means for her (for instance, when noting that you marry someone for "eternity" in the Mormon faith, she recognizes that by not sleeping with him first, she could get stuck with bad sex for eternity). But with this awareness of her faith comes the fact that she does want to believe. Almost every time she's in a vaguely complicated situation (read: a situation where ANY choice is involved at all), her reflections on the situation spiral into a crisis of conscience that seem to put her relationship with God higher than her relationship with her own wants and desires. Does this stop her entirely? No, thank goodness, or else none of us would have bothered with this book. The memoir is basically arranged around recounts of kisses (and occasionally features an updated cartoon featuring the locations of Elna's kisses around Manhattan), so perhaps it's not surprising that it's her love life that is front-and-center throughout the book... or maybe you just needed to know that she's Mormon and in order to achieve the ultimate circle or level of heaven, you have to be married and so finding a marriage partner is a pretty big deal. But even if she does have a relationship with God, I got the impression that she stuck with her religion for the sake of her family. When you're a non-Mormon reading all of this, you like Elna enough to kind of hope that she ditches the religion for the sake of her sanity (Levels of heaven? In the highest one you get to become a God and create your own world? Um, what now?), and yet her loyalty to her family keeps her in a faith that provides emotional obstacles to leaving it. If she marries outside of the church, then she doesn't get to be with her family in heaven. "If I choose not to get married in a Mormon temple, I forfeit the ability to be with my family in the afterlife. I'm convinced that this is why my mother puts so much pressure on marriage: She's afraid of losing me after I'm dead." At a youth meeting, Elna recalls a particular church youth conference called "The Dangers of Dating Outside of Our Faith" where they received a lesson ("Mormons are big on object lessons") where twigs were used to demonstrate their collective strength as a group... though even at twelve, Elna thinks twigs have nothing to do with love. I could keep going on and on with examples of why things seem a little off (though I'll say that perhaps this is because Elna is purposely bringing up humorous incidents where things don't quite line up... incidents which can probably occur in any group, religious or otherwise), but I have one particular passage that seemed to summarize a lot of the story for me as it pertained to Elna, her struggle with finding a Mormon boy, the importance of her family, and the fact that she's not the usual Mormon. She's having a conversation with Tina, her elder sister, about the fact that by Mormon standards, they're old maids in their mid-twenties.
"Why do our lives only matter if we're married?" Tina complained.
"Because we're women," I answered. Only this didn't help cheer her up, so I tried another route. "Has dad ever pressured you to get married?"
"You see? We're fine. Once he starts interfering, then we know we're in trouble. Until then, we're in the clear--"
"He did say something once that really bothered me," she interrupted.
"He said, 'Did we do you kids a disservice by showing you the world?'"
"Why would he think that?" I said defensively.
"Because he said that now, when mom and him want us to make simple choices, choices they know will make us happy, we can't seem to do it."
This was one of the most profound moments for me in the book because it seemed to epitomize Elna's problem -- her parents were simple Mormons who were happy together and, because of work issues, wound up traveling the world. This may have been lovely for them, but for their kids, it was an exposure to a world and choices that were far more complicated than any simple existence their parents once had. There was no going back for the kids. Ignorance might be bliss, but they were no longer ignorant and couldn't reassume a place in a world without the complexities that gave it color and vibrancy. Things were no longer black and white and for Elna, it seemed that to embrace the Mormon faith wholeheartedly, it rather seems as though they needed to be. At one point, Elna even admits, "My dad says I think too much and that if I'm not careful my thoughts will undermine my faith." Seriously? A religion that encourages you to not think? Clearly this isn't Mormon doctrine or anything, but it makes the reader wish that Elna could give it all up without completely alienating her family (and the reader can see why the members of her family are truly good people and worth her loyalty), which seems to be the main reason she sticks with it.
The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance is a delightful read. Elna isn't a brilliant writer, but the situations she describes are really the focus of the book. She does manage to win you over to her side so that you're either cheering or wincing every page (and sometimes you're doing both), whether she's describing her rather painful attempt to date and stay with a Mormon guy or she's flying to Africa to try and win back her atheist love. Clearly it's more than just a funny book, as it spawned this whole questioning rant on my part, but I would attribute that to the reader's fondness for Elna growing into a genuine desire to see her happy with her choices. If you're interested in reading the book but are a little bit on the fence, then perhaps you should take a look at this YouTube video (though it will spoil one of the great essays in the book) where Elna Baker doing an early version of the story for the Rejection Collection where she recounts an experience at the titular New York Mormon Singles Halloween Dance and her ruined fortune cookie costume. Perfectly acceptable for work as a video, though you should use headphones for the audio --http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lBvVBXpV8tI -- and I refuse to be held responsible if you attract stares for snickering too loudly. All in all, a worthwhile read, though I'm not really sure where Elna can go from this in her career. Just the same, I hope she still continues to get herself in awkward situations for my entertainment pleasure, and I'm still holding out hope for the atheist love.