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Amanda Bright@Home by Danielle Crittenden

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When someone first suggested I read Amanda Bright@Home I was a little unsure. I mean isn’t this a book about “women’s issues?” How would I be able to relate to a book about a stay at home mom wrestling with insecurity? I don’t even have kids. (Do I feel guilty about leaving my dogs alone all day? Sure, but that is another topic . . .) So I gave it to a friend who I thought might have more insight into the topic. She read it and enjoyed it and so I thought what the heck I might as well dive in and see what it is all about. I found the topic interesting enough that I wanted to interview the author. Amazingly she was gracious enough to answer some questions. Now that you have read the interview you must be thinking: so what did Kevin think of the book? To try and temper that insatiable thirst for my opinion I know you all have, here is my review.

Amanda Bright@Home is basically two stories woven together, one “internal” the other “external.” The internal story explores the insecurities and emotions of a highly educated “feminist,” Amanda Bright, who decides to leave the workplace, stay home, and raise her children. She must do this in the hothouse of Washington D.C.; where politics, power, and gossip make up the air she breathes. This story while influenced and impacted by outside events takes place inside Amanda’s head. It concerns her thoughts, emotions, doubts, and worries. The external story is the flip side. It is the story of how she inadvertently gets sucked up into, and chewed up by, the Washington power game with serious consequences for her husband’s career and even her marriage. This part of the story is driven by the events and people surrounding Amanda. The book alternates its focus between these two plot lines with each putting pressure on the other. The tension between the two holds the book together.

How you think or feel about these two aspects of the book will, I believe, flavor your reaction to it. One reason behind this is the blending of genres. Danielle Crittenden ambitiously set out to explore emotions and internal struggles (aspects that traditionally appeal to women) AND to tell an interesting and entertaining story (something men usually look for). As a result this is not a clear cut romance or tragedy written for Oprah’s book club. On the other hand it is not really a political or legal thriller either. It is really a sort of sociological novel that attempts to capture the complicated and messy life that modern couples find themselves in today. It is an attempt to reflect and illuminate the unique tension many people feel between the idealistic, and often politically correct, vision of life they soak up from our culture and the demands of raising a family. This about what happens when one’s beliefs, often unexamined, meet reality.

The internal story is the most difficult part. Some of the more negative reviews focused on the main character’s lack of attractive qualities. Apparently they found her insecurities and flaws off putting to the point of distraction. I think the problem is that too many reviewers are looking for cleverness and sarcasm; seeking irony and sleek commentary; groundbreaking new territory. Anyone who has wrestled with insecurity and self-doubt, however, will “get” what Amanda is going through. The early part of the story is dominated by this tense and often unattractive internal battle. Amanda was raised by a strong feminist mother who never envisioned her daughter quitting work to raise a family. She grew up seeking value and worth through her career and accomplishments. Her upbringing and education left her without the tools to navigate the shoals of motherhood and housework. It is not just the physical demands of being a wife and mother of two kids: cleaning and cooking; organizing and supervising her children’s education; shopping and managing the finance; etc. Amanda also has to deal with the mental stress of finding herself in a world she never imagined she would be in at this point in her life. How does she define herself? How does she recharge her batteries after a long day? How does she deal with the little hurts and resentments that can result from being “stuck” with the kids all day? These may be difficult issues, and unglamorous ones at that, but they are real and they are worth thinking about. I don’t feel that Amanda is an “unattractive main character” because she is caught up in a difficult struggle and lacks some heroic response. This is real life.

To add color and to provide comic relief, Amanda must deal with these issues within a social group comprised of wealthy socialites. While Amanda likes to think of herself as artsy and uncompromised – both her and her husband pursued “public service” jobs and they intentionally live in the city not the suburbs – but in reality she is financially and socially squeezed between the traditional middle class and upwardly mobile professionals (lawyers, doctors, etc.). Seeking the best possible education for her children, she uses a family connection to get them into a prestigious private school. This not only proves to be a financial burden but it also lands Amanda in an awkward social position. The mothers she interacts with avoid the guilt and doubt that Amanda is struggling with by hiring nannies and amusing themselves with trips to Europe, dinner parties, and plastic surgery. Amanda instead must worry about how they can afford to continue with private schools for the children and feel guilty that her husband hasn’t had a new suit in years. Danielle Crittenden has a lot of fun at the expense of Amanda’s “friends.” She highlights the absurd competition parents engage in over their children’s education. Parents worried about getting into the best pre-school or about the homework level of kindergarten. Her son is pushed toward counseling for violence issues and gets suspended for waiving a peanut butter cookie around, despite a clear “Say No to Nuts” curriculum. This is social satire straight out of David Brooks’ Bobos in Paradise.

The “external” tension of the book comes from the big break in her husband’s career. Amanda’s husband Bob is a lawyer in the Justice Department’s anti-trust division. As Amanda is attempting to deal with her insecurities and doubts about motherhood, Bob is given the “big case” – an anti-trust suit against software giant Megabyte. Soon Bob is working late every night, getting invited to posh parties, and even appearing on the Sunday talking heads news programs. This of course only increases the pressure on Amanda and tensions escalate. Things get worse when the personal life of one of Amanda’s friends and her husband’s work collide. Amanda gets caught in the crossfire and soon becomes a part of the Washington gossip scene with damaging results for her husband’s career and their marriage. If that is not enough, Amanda’s mother comes to visit. Crittenden brings this all to a boil and adds a few additional plot twists to keep you on your toes. I won’t spoil the ending but obviously something has to change or the situation would simply explode. The book doesn’t end with everything perfectly resolved but rather leaves Amanda more comfortable with the tensions and ambiguities of life.

So what does all this mean, you might ask. It means an interesting read for one. Granted this is not high literature but neither is it a trashy romance novel. It is a thoughtful yet breezy look at modern life. It deals honestly with insecurity and self-doubt yet manages satire and dark humor. The plot is not complex or intricate but it holds your interest and helps pull you through Amanda’s internal struggles. The book has its share of sappy dialogue and one dimensional characters but at times the writing is crisp and witty. The Megabyte case is almost too obviously a parody of Microsoft and the affluent Bobos of the Beltway may be hard to relate too if you have never lived in DC but for the most part the thoughts, emotions, and experiences of Amanda and her family seemed very real to me. In fact one of the reasons I moved back to the Midwest was to avoid the potential stress and tension present in this book. Even though I am obviously not a stay at home mom, I could relate to the doubts and insecurities of Amanda. I could sympathize with the frustration she experienced when the world turned out to be a lot different than she imagined it to be; when once bright hopes and dreams seem unreachable. The story doesn’t end in depression or euphoria but in reality. In doing the best you can for those you love; in working out a compromise between the ideal and the practicable. In learning to be comfortable in your own skin as you grow older. Amanda Bright@Home is an interesting and enjoyable way to think about these issues. Summer reading with food for thought as a bonus – that ought to be worth something these days.

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