Kim Johnson Gross's "What to Wear for the Rest of Your Life: Ageless Secrets of Style" has a terrific title; that and the author's resumé (co-author of the Chic Simple book series) sounded promising. The promise, though, was hollow as a cheap silver cuff.
What you will get is warmed-over style advice sprinkled through a most restrained breakup memoir. As I read, I could hear the marketing wheels turning: "Menopause? Breakup? What to wear? There's a book in that."
A better breakup story
Wading though Johnson Gross's pallid account of the end of her marriage, I was reminded of John Irving's advice to aspiring writers: "Just because it happened to you does not mean it's interesting."
For an immeasurably superior memoir, read Mary Karr's "Lit". Karr writes the harrowing daylights out of her story. "Lit" is short on style advice–Karr being a stilettos-and-red-lipstick-solves-anything gal– but a dip into Style.com will fill the gap.
Not Johnson Gross's fault that she wasn't a certifiable nutbar like Karr, the kind of mother who swills whiskey alone on the back porch instead of reading bedtime stories to her son, but it doesn't make the pages fly or the woman who wrote them leap to life.
Johnson Gross falls apart when her mother tells her to lose weight after she sees her in a two-piece swimsuit. Mean Mummy!
Karr's mother, Charlie, is another order of difficult. Karr invites the hardscrabble Charlie to her wedding to a son of a socially prominent family, only to find Mom getting high with the hairdresser when they should be en route to the church. Confronting her mother about decades of dysfunction, she asks Charlie to name one good quality. "I'm be fun to be with?", her mother offers hopefully.
Better style advice
Most style books offer little fresh material, and "What to Wear" repeats familiar ground: play up your assets, buy quality, cull your closet.
If you're looking for guidance should you be invited, as the first wife, to a party at your re-married ex's, rent the DVD "It's Complicated", which opens with the same scenario and at least shows you Meryl Streep's terrific clothes.
Johnson Gross has one tip I'll use: If you aren't wearing an item, move it to the front of your closet and force yourself to wear it. If, after two months, you still aren't wearing and liking it, pass it on.
Repetition abounds: multiple mentions of the same Kazuko wire-wrapped heart (her signature piece) and descriptions of her fairly classic wardrobe.
There's a fleeting reference to the error of drowning her sorrows and deliverance via therapy and gratitude, but she comes across as a tightly-wound woman who has figured out what clothes work for her.
The most disturbing aspect is her continual reference to a 20-pound menopausal weight gain (in her case, on her stomach) as The Alien. She spends many paras hating The Alien, disguising The Alien, exercising like a madwoman to lose The Alien, who does not diminish by a single ounce despite her triathalon.
This self-loathing of her no longer skinny body saddened me. Not many women welcome midlife weight gain, but it's far healthier to learn to dress around an altered figure than to denigrate your fleshier middle with a negative name.
If you want precise style advice there are many better books (Kendall Farr's "The Pocket Stylist, for one) and blogs (Inside Out Style).
If you are interested in an unstinting memoir of devastation, fearless examination and a hard-won, wary peace, "Lit" delivers provocation, poetry and lashings of mordant humour.