1 May 2015

Beauty Tips for Girls by Margaret Montgomery

Beauty Tips for Girls by Margaret Montgomery
Beauty Tips for Girls by Margaret Montgomery
Beauty Tips For Girls is the debut novel from Edinburgh-based Margaret Montgomery. Eminently readable, it meanders along the borders between chick-lit and lit-fic, being in turns too serious to be one, and not quite frivolous enough to be the other.

This is an achievement not to be sniffed at, and it's achieved through the running litany of a dead-pan lampoon of teenage girls' magazines.

Chick-lit isn’t always held to be the most progressive of literary forms, and while Beauty Tips For Girls flirts with many of its conventions, it remains a novel grounded in reality. It doesn't exaggerate any of its characters into the sort of grotesques that might be helpful in pushing an agenda, and tries instead to relay as much genuine character as possible.

It’s hard to describe Beauty Tips For Girls as either firing a salvo in the gender wars or as offering any hope for the future; instead Beauty Tips  presents the situation as it is, and despite being a jaunty ride, if examined offers no hope of change.

Perhaps I’m spoiled.  I have just read Mimi by Lucy Ellmann which deals with only a few of the same issues, the primary concern being women’s body images of themselves.
Unlike Beauty Tips For Girls, Lucy Ellmann’s Mimi rams the reader with cannonade after cannonade of impatient attack against the patriarchy and most startlingly of all offers a cast-iron solution.

Although Beauty Tips For Girls is a far tamer animal, Mimi is worth a mention because both novels present a part of their argument in the character of a (cosmetic) plastic surgeon, but Montgomery's surgeon is more of an all-purpose baddie, and not the strongest character in her book.

Her strongest suit is without doubt keeping your attention, which she does with a variety of modes. There are letters and magazine articles, and one of these creepy questionnaires which score you on your attractiveness, or in this case, your ideal weight:

25-30 points: You probably don't need us to tell you but you're fat. Put down that bowl of Frosties and start running, preferably to the nearest branch of Weight Watchers.
19-25 points: You like to think you're all woman, Sophia Loren meets Kate Winslet. Sorry to inform you that if you're not careful some of those 'curves' could morph into blubber. A little less pasta, a little more sex -  but be careful not to wear your man out.
Under 19: Sorry, we didn't see you there. You were standing side on. Fat isn't your problem but has anyone told you that you can be too thin? What looks good when you're a Swedish high jumper is about as sexy as a clothes horse when you're a pasty-faced Brit.

It's an example of how brilliant this book can be, and it is never a burden, even if in the end, Beauty Tips For Girls presents men as the bedrock on which each women yearns to lie.  The character of Jane Ellingham, likely the best drawn character in Beauty Tips, spends much of the novel savagely admonishing herself for her failure as a woman, and ultimately finds confidence and well-being through a union that is perhaps a little predictable.

THE STORY

Beauty Tips For Girls is presented as the lives of three woman, as seen from the inside. These are the teenager Kate Clemmy whose roster of woes is beautifully set out in various typographic pastiches; her teacher Jane Ellngham, who lives cossetted life, and Corrine Clemmy, an alcoholic.

Katy’s story is the most compelling because we are convincingly thrust into that confusion of feelings that every teenage girl knows.  The character of the alcoholic Corrine, is less well managed, and her monologues are peppered throughout the book, although don’t offer much insight into recovery, or shed much on the general development of the story.  

Somewhat stranger to the promise of the novel then is the fact that although the lives of these three women are ‘inextricably linked’ (as a good publicist would have it), the roots of their problems are a tad condensed.  Corrine is an incorrigible alcoholic because of the loss of a four year old child, and Jane Ellingham lives in mental purgatory because of an abortion she had as a teenager.  Their monologues repeat these traumas but don't develop them, and there are way more happy endings in this book than there are in real life...

... well maybe that is the difference between the two? But I didn't care so much for the way everything turned out so peachy for absolutely everybody involved in this book!

Beauty Tips For Girls is still funny and moving and brilliantly satirises teenage magazines and their bitchy exhortations towards ideal femininity.  What Beauty Tips is in its best moments, is reality.  In reality women do not overcome social assaults on their self-image.  In reality, women often succumb to stereotype when it comes to the whole concept of beauty, and that is what Margaret Montgomery is exploring. 

Interestingly, Beauty Tips is set around 2002, before all of the stuff it describes moved online. Anyone who knows girls of nearly any age these days will tell you that popularity of YouTube channels discussing make-up and other 'related' issues, has enlarged much of this body-madness and neurosis into an even more popular phenomenon.

The sad heart of the book is the story of a girl who runs away from home to try and secure plastic surgery, prompted by an advertisement in a girls' magazine.  Worse, her mother is so morbidly drunk that she does not even know her girl is missing, and the father is rather slow to react...

... in fact, he is rather slow in general, and dull too, not unlike some of the other men in the book.

The men in Beauty Tips For Girls are at times vaguely two-dimensional, either as young and boorish or as ineffectual and unable to understand what women are really feeling.  As Beauty Tips is so rounded as a novel, I can't put this down to sloppy writing, but actually ascribe it once more to reality in the raw...

A confident and pleasing debut then, seek out it, and take the test yourself: 'Our revealing quiz will help you uncover each and every one of your flaws so you need never look your worst again.'