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June 5, 2007

Cease to Blush by Billie Livingston.

Though I might argue that ten million ecstatic reviews could be wrong, I would also add that they must be indicative of something. Billie Livingston’s second novel Cease to Blush was enthusiastically received by critics and readers, and though I had some problems with the book, I do see why one would be keen on it. Vivian, our heroine, is the daughter of famous feminist academic who has just died of cancer. Vivian is a walking backlash to her mother’s principles, wayward, sexual, a bit actress who plays dead prostitutes in cop shows, drinks vodka from the mo she rolls out of bed, and her boyfriend is an absolute sleazebag. So what happens when Vivian delves into her mother’s (literal) trunk of secrets, and discovers that before this sister was doing it for herself, she was a famous stripper, singer, gangster moll, and one-time paramour of RFK? Naturally, Vivian jumps into a red convertible for a roadtrip to put together the pieces of her mother’s secret life. With the help of true-crime books, biographies, google searches, and a lot of luck, Vivian creates her mother’s story for herself, though all the while her own story is woven throughout this fiction. In learning about her mother’s past, Vivian is able to make sense of her present.

I was attracted by the initial premise of this book, as Vivian attends her mother’s funeral in a bright red suit, somewhat conspicuous amidst her mother’s crunchy friends. Her relationship with her mother’s partner Sally is also compelling, as these two women try to fit into one another’s contexts. Though I must admit that Vivian’s story fell off the rails for me not too far in, by mid-way through the book I was quite caught up in the adventures of Vivian’s mother, even if the adventures were not necessarily the truth and just a product of Vivian’s mind. It was a good story all the same in parts, suspense and intrigue all around, and the glamour of the Rat Pack and glitzy side of the sixties. I think that this story was probably what other readers loved best- the sense of fun, rollicking party all night long. Many times I did wish that this had been the entire book.

Because the rest of it, I struggled with. It bothered me that the dichotomy between “feminist” and “slut” is never reconciled. What was I supposed to take from this? That within every womyn lies a former burlesque dancer? I believe that women are more complicated than this book suggests. In terms of plot, I also thought there were real problems– the penlight on Vivian’s keychain for one. Now Vivian was an absolute screw-up, and not the type to carry a penlight, and perhaps the penlight was meant to symbolize that Vivian was more than her stereotype, but I got the sense that it functioned more as a plot device. The penlight was so out-of-character for Vivian, I didn’t buy it. Another such unlikely occurence: that when Vivian goes to an address she finds written on a 40 year-old piece of paper, of course the present occupier isn’t who she’s looking for, but occupier does have a forwarding address for her. I don’t anyone keeps records that good. Results of Google searches, and items Vivian comes across in books similarly serve to propel her journey along without her having to do any propelling herself. The story falls into her lap, and the plot felt so flimsy to me. Vivian never seems bothered by the fact that her mother lied for her entire life, and seems quite unfazed by the revelations. Minutes after finding out her mother’s stage name, she’s referring to her by it– there is never any confusion. Vivian never feels betrayed or confused, but rather “Cool, Mom was a stripper. Let us hit the road.” I also didn’t buy how smart Vivian was supposed to be, which we are to infer because she corrects her friends when they use words wrong. But if Vivian is so smart, why did it take her over 400 pages to come to her epiphany, which was only that she should no longer let her scuzzy boyfriend sell their homemade p*rn on the internet? I was really pleased when Vivian figured this out, but I could have told her ages ago. And I really wished I could have, because reading about her journey to this point was very tedious.

As a reader, I felt like this book thought I was stupid. As stupid as Vivian even, which was a bit insulting. But I am not going to out and out dismiss it, because flaws aside, it might have a place. Cease to Blush is suited for a beach, I suppose, or the tub, or any day you’re not feeling altogether demanding of your fiction.

One thought on “Cease to Blush by Billie Livingston.”

  1. patricia says:

    Hmmmm. Well, at least I feel a bit vindicated. You were a lot nicer than I was with this book, that’s for sure. For the life of me I can’t understand why it got such rave reviews. I found no compelling ideas presented in this book at all. And the scenes with the stripper mother hanging with the Rat Pack folk in Vegas were just torture for me to read. There’s much better beach books out there to read.

    I like that cover desgin, though. Thanks for the review.

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