Published by Knopf Publishing Group on June 12, 2018
Esther Ann Hicks--Essie--is the youngest child on Six for Hicks, a reality television phenomenon. She's grown up in the spotlight, both idolized and despised for her family's fire-and-brimstone brand of faith. When Essie's mother, Celia, discovers that Essie is pregnant, she arranges an emergency meeting with the show's producers: Do they sneak Essie out of the country for an abortion? Do they pass the child off as Celia's? Or do they try to arrange a marriage--and a ratings-blockbuster wedding? Meanwhile, Essie is quietly pairing herself up with Roarke Richards, a senior at her school with a secret of his own to protect. As the newly formed couple attempt to sell their fabricated love story to the media--through exclusive interviews with an infamously conservative reporter named Liberty Bell--Essie finds she has questions of her own: What was the real reason for her older sister leaving home? Who can she trust with the truth about her family? And how much is she willing to sacrifice to win her own freedom?
I assume that you, like most denizens of the Internet, know who the Duggar family is. And if you don’t … well, frankly I admire you and would love to know how you’ve managed to avoid them all these years. But anyway, I digress.
The Book of Essie is what I’ve hoped to see come limping out of the garbage fire that is the Duggar family, all these years later. An unflinching look at religious zeal, having your family broadcast for the world to see, family dynamics, the whole nine yards. I figured it would go off in one particular direction, and I was pleasantly surprised to discover how wrong I was.
How I’d Describe This Book to a Friend
Esther Ann Hicks, “Essie” to most everyone, is the youngest of six children whose lives have been broadcast on a TV show known aptly as Six For Hicks. Similarly to the Duggar family, their world is one of church, mission trips, worship services, and going everywhere with a camera crew in tow. There are some differences – Essie is allowed to attend public school, for instance, after audiences decided it would make the family more relatable to have the baby of the family in the public’s eye – but by and large, this is reminiscent of most large, American families founded on a religious cornerstone.
The book opens with a punch – Essie is listening in on a conversation her mother and the producers of the family TV show are having over what to do about Essie’s unborn baby. Essie is not part of this discussion, but rather is reduced to snooping via a spot in the laundry room that lets her overhear conversation between the crew and her family. We do not know who the father of this child is – what we know is that Essie is 17 years old, and this was clearly not an intentional pregnancy. Her mother – Celia – can be cast as one of the villains of this story, and we see her act in a way I can only describe as akin to Maleficent, or maybe the evil queen in Once Upon a Time – she is cool, collected, calm, and another c-word that is 4 letters that I refuse to type out. If it doesn’t benefit the ratings, Celia has no interest in it: this would include terminating her youngest child’s pregnancy. It is decided, then and there, that a sham wedding might just be the best thing for Essie and her baby. Luckily, Essie already has this planned out, and she knows just the guy: enter Roarke.
Roarke is the son of two poor parents who own the local hunting shop, and are in debt up to their eyeballs with no relief in sight. To marry their son off to Esther Hicks means a lifetime of not having to worry about anything, no debt for them or their son. And while Roarke goes to school with Essie Hicks, he doesn’t know her from Adam and has no desire to really speak to her. At the end of the day, however, Roarke goes through with it – for his family, mainly – he still has no interest in Essie Hicks as a person. But that is bound to change eventually, right? It does, just not in the way you think it will.
We also have a B-story from the point of view of Liberty Bell (hurr hurr hurr), a reporter who is in charge of interviewing Essie and who seems to have grown up with an equally terrible religious conviction, although hers seems to have involved her twin sister, Justice (ha ha ha!) being murdered. I really enjoyed this side plot, and how Essie and Justice’s friendship began to develop over their shared bond of religious fuckery, but I can see why there is some condemnation of Liberty’s storyline being unnecessary to the plot of the main story.
The Bottom Line
I went into this book thinking I was going to see your bog-standard “girl and boy get together out of necessity, hate each other, fall in love” storyline. I can tell you this much – that doesn’t happen. Nothing close to that happens. Meghan MacLain Weir has a gift of taking your expectations, waiting until you let your guard down, and then subverting them so you’re left guessing. I love a book like that, and they are not common these days – it’s all too easy to guess who the bad guy is, but I can safely say that until I was about 50% through this book I was guessing wrong. The other 50%? I was rooting for Essie and Roarke and Liberty like they were my own close, personal friends.
I am giving this four stars instead of five simply because while I absolutely adored it, the ending is not realistic at all. I can’t say much without spoilers, but this is what we want to happen in a situation like this – sadly, it’s not really what actually happens, and we’ve seen this played out in reality. But the ending is sweet and gives us hope, so I can’t be too mad at it. Essie is bold, confident and knows what she’s doing – I suggest going along for the ride with her, you won’t regret it.