Sunday, October 24, 2010

"The New York Regional Momon Singles Halloween Dance" by Elna Baker

It's lonely being a Mormon in New York City. So once again, Elna Baker attends the New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance - a virgin in a room full of virgins doing the Macarena. Her Queen Bee costume, which involves a black funnel stuck to her butt for a stinger, isn't attracting the attention she'd anticipated. So once again, Elna is alone at the punch bowl, stocking up on generic Oreos, exactly where you'd expect to find a single Mormon who's also a Big Girl. But loneliness is nothing compared to what happens when Elna loses eighty pounds, finds herself suddenly beautiful...and in love with an atheist.

The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance is a memoir about a girl who's as paradoxical as the city she's coming-of-age in: a girl who distresses her family when she chooses NYU over BYU; a girl who's cultivating an oxymoronic identity as a bold, educated, modern, funny, proper, abstinent, religious stand-up comic - equal parts wholesome and hot. As Elna test-drives her identity, she finds herself in the strangest scenarios: selling creepy, overpriced dolls to petulant children at FAO Schwarz; making out with the rich and famous; nearly getting married in Utah; and arriving at the New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance in an obscene costume.

It all boils down to a young woman wondering where love comes from and what will make her feel the least alone in a city full of strangers. Brazenly honest, this is Elna's hilarious and heartfelt chronicle of her attempt to steer clear of temptation and find out if she can just get by on God.

Again, this is one of those little gems that appeared in our outside book drop one morning. See why I love working at the library? Anyway, the title caught my eye, as well as the cover art. I read the inside blurb, and even though I'm not really interested in the Mormon religion, or anyone struggling with it (think all those books that have come out lately by women escaping the more fanatic sects of said religion), I decided there might be something to this book. It looked like it would be funny, and funny is always good in my world.

Well, the book is funny, but it's also quite serious at times, too, which caught me off guard. Elna is a perfect example of the new modern religious dilemma - can you be true to your religious upbringing (especially one that isn't considered "normal" by a lot of the free world) and also true to yourself? I was very moved by her plight; once she moves to New York, she finds herself drawn to all the wonderful people and places that she wants to be a part of: the acting community, the stand-up community, the famous that wine and dine at a the restaurant where she hosts, etc. But there are so many things that she can't/shouldn't do as a good Mormon - and she does consider herself a good Mormon. So no drinking, no smoking, and when she goes out with a guy, nothing other than kissing. No easy task in the Big Apple! And definitely no easy task when you'd really like to be doing some of those things, especially the "more than kissing" part. Elna makes it very obvious that while she remains true to her faith, she's also very much a woman, one with feelings, and yes, needs.

What I found very interesting were her parents. They sounded very much like my own, and no, we're not Mormon, not really any particular denomination at all. Her parents had five children and attempted to show them the world, even while remaining true to their faith. Indeed, at one point in the book, Elna overhears her parents discussing her unmarried status (being single and in her 20s equates spinsterhood in the Mormon faith); they worry that perhaps they were bad parents by exposing their children to so many things when they were young. A very normal concern, I think, for any parents of any faith. I thought her parents were so cool! I really liked the way her dad would let them choose where they went on vacations; he didn't use any method I'd ever heard of before, but it was really neat.

And yes, there's true heartbreak here as well. It's very obvious that Elna truly loved her boyfriend the atheist, but like many couples, they couldn't overcome their religious differences. What's worse is that while I read her account of the relationship, it became clear that he really loved her too. How sad is that - two people that are truly in love, but cannot stay together because of their religions? The boyfriend issue isn't the only thing Elna struggles with - she's always asked questions of her faith, and she finds herself asking even more after the failed relationship with the atheist. I found that heartbreaking, too, that Elna might have to choose to leave her religion because she starts to find herself at such odds with its dogma. When you've been raised one way, and then start to realize that it may not be the way you want/can live your life, that's a very scary time. I just wanted to find her, give her a huge hug, and tell her that everything will be OK.

I think what surprised me the most was her weight issue. I wasn't shocked that she was a woman wanting to lose weight - half or more of the world's female population believes they're "fat" at any given moment of any given day. What surprised me was that it didn't play as big a part in the book as I thought it would. Or maybe I just didn't notice it all that much. However, how she does finally lose the weight plays a big part in her questioning her faith, and that really struck me.

This was a wonderful find for me, and I would definitely recommend you find a copy for yourself. It's not a very big book, so consider it a short read. I think it's a very interesting story, that of Elna's life, one full of humor, angst, and a girl just trying to find her way in the world.

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