Picks and Pans Review: The Power of Beauty
You've got to love Nancy Friday. If the subject is a sexual taboo, Friday is there; she successfully explored mother-daughter envy in My Mother/My Self, female sexual fantasy in My Secret Garden and the green-eyed monster in Jealousy. This time it's women and beauty, a theme that allows Friday to take an all-too-sweeping journey through her chosen literary landscape.
"Because women are raised to deny beauty so as to ward off others' envy," Friday writes, "we never really learn its full power, its effect on people, how we might better use it." The competitiveness that beauty incites among women—and between men and women—is at the heart of Friday's 552-page epic, which switches somewhat randomly from personal memoir to cultural criticism and back again. She digs up a mind-boggling collection of popular icons—from Lorena Bobbitt to Camille Paglia, from the Village People to Bruno Bettelheim—in service of her thesis that (gasp!) beauty is a double-edged sword that causes envy even as it gives women a leg up in the bedroom and the workplace.
Friday writes with a manic verve, citing a movie she saw the night before, the contents of the morning's mail, a book party she attended, a conversation with a friend—everything is grist for her mill. Her descriptions of her absent father, her beautiful mother and sister, and her own awkward teenage years are moving and honest. As always, Friday is her own best subject. (HarperCollins, $27.50)