BOOKS NOVEMBER 15, 2012
by Pippa Middleton
Viking, 400 pp., $50
IMAGINE THAT YOU are Pippa Middleton (bear with me here). You are a 29-year-old English woman whose professional life experience amounts to working for your parents’ party-planning company. You’re what the British call “a Sloane” (roughly, the U.K. equivalent of a preppy Wasp) and “a good sort” (American translation: a good sport). As chance would have it, your older sister has married the future king of England and, aided by your penchant for socializing in places frequented by the British paparazzi (Wimbledon, ritzy London nightclubs, polo matches), you have become globally famous. However, as you note, “so much [has been] written about me when I have done so little to paint a picture of myself.” So you decide to rectify that misperception using the obvious medium: a guide to entertaining.
Now, of all the career moves Middleton might have made at this juncture in her life—when presumably she can barely walk down the road without slipping on blank checks from fashion designers and PR companies—writing a book on entertaining is not a bad idea. She can claim some experience (the family business), and she professes “enthusiasm” for entertaining. Moreover, books about entertaining are, like sex guides, rarely read for actual instruction. Rather, they are domestic voyeurism: how the other half—or, at least, one other person—lives. Anthony Lane once remarked that “cookbooks ... do not belong in the kitchen at all. … [A] cookbook is something that you read in the living room, or in the bathroom, or in bed.” A book on entertaining is something you flick through while curled up on the sofa, marveling at the effort someone somewhere took to plan hors d’oevres as you shove another potato chip into your mouth.
So by this measure, the incontrovertible fact that Middleton’s book contains hardly a single memorable, or even useful, piece of information within its lavish pages is not necessarily a problem. No, the problem is this: either Middleton thinks her readers are idiots or she herself needs some schooling.
But before we get to the specifics, let us pause and take a moment to be grateful that, of all the things for which one should give thanks in life (good health, kindly parents, quiet neighbors), the vast majority of us do not have a famous sibling. Second only to being the child of a celebrity, being the sibling of a celebrity seems particularly damaging to one’s sense of perspective. One cannot blame Middleton for having a famous sibling, nor should one see all of her endeavors through the prism of the Duchess of Cambridge, as the woman formerly known as Kate Middleton is now known. It is not Pippa Middleton’s fault that Penguin saw fit to pay a £400,000 advance to an otherwise unqualified writer, basically paying her for having a sister who married, as they say, up. Who says the little people aren’t rewarded by the class system?
There are reports that Penguin is banking on recouping the advance through American sales, but I would gently advise the publisher to have a fallback plan. While the British attitude toward the royals is generally split between adoration and abhorrence, the American attitude is generally one of benign vague interest. The beautiful women who marry into the royals—Diana, Kate—are blessed with American love, evoking Cinderella with a handsome(ish) prince. But the rest of the royals are hardly acknowledged, and the extended family is utterly unknown. (Could the average American pick the Duke of York—Charles’s younger brother—from a line up?) Middleton has some name recognition in America; but I would not have made a £400,000 bet on it.
In any event, it is by no means clear whether this book—which follows the course of a year with seasonal festivities, recipes, and parties—is aimed at the British or the American market. The subtitle of the U.K. version, with its emphasis on “British,” suggests the latter, insinuating the introduction of a foreign culture: when do you serve crumpets and what exactly goes in a Pimms cup? Yet Celebrate—which begins with October, for no obvious reason—uses Halloween as its opening sally, and it seems unlikely that too many Americans will be grateful for costume tips such as “ears and a tail for a black cat” and “a pointy hat, fake hair and a broom for a witch’s outfit,” as well as a half page’s worth of instructions about how to bob for apples.
If Celebrate holds any appeal to America, it will probably be as an illustration of the differences between the American and British approaches to entertaining in general. In my experience, an American dinner party tends to be a relatively formal occasion and proud of it, with complicated main dishes, table placements, and hired caterers all being fairly regular features. In Britain, perhaps because of the more deep-seated anxieties about class, such shows of effort are frowned upon. Casualness—or, at least, an appearance of casualness—is what the host aims for, and the posher the host, often times, the more casual the dinner. Middleton’s book captures this particular British mentality, with its recommendations of a curry buffet for New Year’s Eve and “lazy brunches”—all illustrated with photos of Middleton smiling prettily and wearing expensive clothes, surrounded by plummy young men and cherry-cheeked children. It presents a fantasy of monied British life that will one day look as class-specific as Downton Abbey or a Lilly Pulitzer catalog.
Yet any hits of exoticism that the book might impart will surely be undermined by the banality of the advice. Not even the most devoted of Anglophiles needs a book telling him how to make tin-can telephones for children or how to win at a sack race. (“The first person to cross the finish line is the winner,” Middleton instructs.) Yet the book surely cannot be designed for the British market, as no Brit needs a lesson on Bonfire Night or how to make toad in the hole. This would be like telling an American how to bob for apples or toast marshmallows. Oh. Wait a minute…
As I said earlier, one cannot blame Middleton for being offered almost half a million pounds to knock out a book in which she details how to make a cup of tea (“the tea bags should go in a teapot”). One can only bewail celebrity-obsession and the debasement of publishing houses. Still, one can criticize her for producing a book of such breathtaking triviality. She may well have a “passion” for writing and an “enjoyment” of entertaining, but the former does not come across and the latter does not qualify her any more than being a fan of novels makes one a good novelist. I would rather chew my own hair off than go to Martha Stewart’s house for Christmas (she is not a woman who radiates warm, relaxed good times), but her books on entertaining succeed because they proffer original ideas: even if you don’t follow them, they make for a fun read. I can’t say the same here. Thanks, Pippa, and congratulations on all your dumb luck, but I already know that to wrap presents you need wrapping paper, scissors, and tape.
Hadley Freeman is a Guardian columnist and the author of the forthcoming Be Awesome: Modern Life For Modern Ladies (Fourth Estate). Follow: @HadleyFreeman