I was wearing Lululemon leggings when I first started reading Jia Tolentino’s upcoming book of essays, Trick Mirror. My athleisure wear seemed reasonable at first – I was about to get on a plane and wanted to be comfortable – but as soon as I reached essay three, fittingly titled “Always Be Optimizing” I began to question my overpriced, skin-tight leggings and the societal pressure that had led me to squeeze my legs into them. This kind of introspection is nothing new for Tolentino’s avid readers. We’re used to coming away from one of her pieces with a new perspective on a seemingly normal habit, and sometimes with a slightly deflated ego.
Frequently hailed as the voice of our generation, Tolentino is a staff writer at the New Yorker, the holder of an MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan’s prestigious writing program, former deputy editor at Jezebel, a past member of the Peace Corps, and a reality television alumnus. She’s known for her poignant and often hilariously relatable essays on millennial culture, and for her razor-sharp reporting on the #MeToo movement, American politics, and, oddly enough, Borat. Though I’ve followed Tolentino’s work for quite some time, getting such a large dose of her work in Trick Mirror was truly thrilling.
Trick Mirror covers a wide range of topics, from modern feminism to Fyre Festival, from the University of Virginia’s complicated history to the pressure women feel to get married, from dabbling in drug use to the oft-corrupting influence of religion. Each essay can standalone as a beautiful and insightful piece of writing, but together they create a book that’s at once hopeful and humorous, and also troubling in a necessary way. Tolentino, more so than most other writers operating today, has a startling ability to strike at the core of an issue, and then to peel back each layer of complexity and lay bare the truth. Her unique, intelligent voice shines through in each sentence, and her essays never fail to be inclusive of a range of perspectives and experiences.
My favourite essay in the collection, titled We Come From Old Virginia, chronicles Tolentino’s experiences during her undergraduate studies at the University of Virginia, and her subsequent reaction to Rolling Stone’s infamous and now widely discredited article A Rape on Campus. The article, reported and written by Sabrina Erdely, told the shocking story of a UVA student named Jackie, who claimed to have been brutally raped during a frat party. The article caused an uproar and widespread anger within the university and fraternity system. Eventually found to be deeply flawed and poorly investigated, the article became a sore spot in the fight for women’s rights on campus, and an oft-cited piece of evidence to support the horrifically flawed argument that women lie about assault. In her essay, Tolentino explores UVA’s problematic history with slavery, racism, sexism and examines the impact of the Rolling Stone piece.
In just under 300 pages Tolentino summarizes two decades of American culture, including the rise of the internet, the fight for women’s rights, society’s continuing obsession with marriage, and the challenging world that’s been created for millennials. Reading Trick Mirror will make you feel more intelligent, more in tune with the world, and a bit more understood. It’s a bold book, but also an unapologetic one. Tolentino’s voice is exactly what we need to combat the absolute bullshit of the 21st century.
Disclaimer: An advanced copy of Trick Mirror was provided to me in exchange for my honest review. The book will be available for purchase on August 6th, 2019 through Penguin Random House Canada.