This book review is intended for readers who have already read Carrie Pilby or for people who haven’t read Carrie Pilby but would rather just read my book review about it! Which is all to say that there are spoilers ahead!
Carrie Pilby, by Caren Lissner, is a novel about a 19-year-old young woman living in New York City. Having skipped three grades and graduated Harvard at age eighteen, she is now a lonely genius living by herself, as afforded by her father who works abroad; although she is financially well-off and intellectually gifted, Carrie has no friends and a slew of self-imposed morally rigid rules. In an attempt to improve her social capabilities, her therapist Dr. Petrov gives Carrie a list of five things to do, including go on a date and celebrate New Year’s Eve. Throughout the novel, Carrie acquires a few strange friends from her part-time legal proofreading job, and another few from local spots. Ultimately, Carrie begins to realize her own hypocrisies as life reveals its complexities, moral ambiguities, and hidden pleasures.
Carrie Pilby was Caren Lissner’s first novel in 2003. Since then, she has published another novel, Starting from Square Two, and has another novel currently up her sleeve. She grew up and still lives in New Jersey, where she’s worked as a reporter and hosts trivia nights.
I feel the need to give a little backstory about why I chose this book to be a part of my Slanted Spines Book List, other than that it promised to be a fun read: when I was an undergraduate at Kent State, I wrote a novel for my honors thesis. My novel was inspired by The Catcher in the Rye, and I wrote a modern-day retelling of it from a young woman’s perspective in Washington, D.C. As my advisor and I researched books that were similar to our vision, the only one we really found comparable was Carrie Pilby. I began reading it for inspiration, but being as college student, I made it halfway through before putting it down and winging it on my own.
One of the most noteworthy quirks of this book is the snarky, quick-witted, overly analytical voice of the narrator. Her confident judgments of the world waft upon the overbearing scent of naïveté, while her most private thoughts reek of the loneliness she often refuses to admit. Although written from an intelligent yet youthful 19-year-old’s perspective, there were many parts when I related to Carrie’s observations and feelings.
People who don’t do this, just lie still and allow their thoughts to transport them to different places, are missing life.Page 82
There’s a longstanding phrase among writers: “Write what you know.” I have the feeling that Lissner did a lot of “writing what she knew” in this book, because Carrie makes a lot of observations and valid albeit judgmental commentary about so many things; it was like Lissner went through a notebook of “disillusioned observations” she’d made over the years and tried to pack them all into this.
Okay, and then there are times when Lissner is just straight up hilarious, such as when Carrie is telling Kara about her former affair with her college professor, David.
I tell her the story from beginning to end. I even apologize for the fact that I did this with my English professor—I’ve come to realize how trite it was, since no one ever has an affair with their math professor. I guess the things math professors say in class aren’t very seductive. Except when they talk about how line AB slides gracefully past the Y intercept.Page 115
Caren Lissner has a bunch of experience writing for comedy, and you can tell from reading Carrie Pilby. I found myself laughing quite a bit through this book.
That all being said, it’s not surprising that this is Lissner’s first novel, judging by the quality. The pacing is boring at times, and I found it strange that Carrie reveals the entirety of her big secret on page 42. Earlier, she had even alluded to it, but wrote, “I’ll get to that later.” So, maybe twenty pages later, she dishes out the hot gossip about her ex-relationship with her former college professor, David. However, what was even more confusing, was that this relationship doesn’t affect anything about Carrie’s current life. Sure, she’s lonely, but she explains that she was lonely before David, too. She’s not in love with him, and she doesn’t miss him, and she understands that he was somewhat taking advantage of her—so perhaps the juiciest bit of drama, which is that Carrie had this relationship with David, is not only a blip that happened in the past, but has basically nothing to do with the novel except Carrie can use that to say, “I have had sex, and I still think it’s bad.”
- Do you like narrators who have a lot of opinions, or do you prefer more neutral narrators?
- What passage was the funniest to you?
For the same reason we love cocky, yet lovably flawed characters, I love Carrie Pilby. I can see her being a detective like Nancy Drew, and disgruntled old men whose plan she foiled would begrudgingly call her “plucky” and “meddling.” She’s like Hermione—genius, unapologetic, socially outcasted, with an inclination for justice. And despite her insecurities, she lacks no confidence, such as when David assigns her class a writing exercise to talk about their flaws:
Harrison said that plumbing one’s own flaws was a characteristic of modernist writing.
…Of the three grades I skipped, second grade seemed the most abrupt… I told some more about myself, but finding something I disliked about myself was hard.Page 43
It’s easy for people to look at Carrie and think, “Wow, she’s a genius who went to Harvard. She must have it all,” but because of the very talent which sets her up for success, its double-edged nature causes her social isolation. Because she is so intellectual yet socially awkward, it’s cumbersome and often impossible for her to relate to her peers, and so in some cases, she resorts to forming bonds with manipulative yet more mature older men such as David. She has almost no female figures in her life because of her mother’s early death, and her only friend is Kara, a smart yet often materialistic coworker.
Because Carrie’s used to just being a genius, the fact that she actually has to try and potentially (and probably) fail is overwhelming to her. There are multiple situations in which Carrie whines and whines because other people are not socializing with her—as though she doesn’t even realize it’s a two-way street. At the Harvard alum mixer, she waits around for other people to approach her, and becomes irritated when not one person engages with her, only once making a half-hearted attempt to make the first move. The juxtaposition of her book smarts and social ineptitude is interesting, because in some situations she is wise and well-read, and in other scenarios, she is juvenile and entitled. By the end of the novel, she begins to realize that life is much more complicated than she realized and that although she will have to put forth a social effort, making friends is really amazing.
Carrie’s character arc is respectable—she begins the novel as a stubborn young adult, and after several social challenges and lessons, she takes actions to become the best version of herself, such as how she joins the church community working with Natto.
Originally, when I discovered this book, my professor and I had equated it to The Catcher in the Rye. Although Carrie’s living situation is slightly different from Holden’s, both young protagonists’ tales take place in New York City, where they struggle with their emotions, fears, identity, and trauma. At the time, my professor and I had asked, “Why Holden? Why is The Catcher in the Rye considered prolific, yet not Carrie Pilby?” We postulated, what many people may likewise suspect, that it had something to do with gender. Even if not Carrie Pilby, why not any other novel written by a young woman about the throes of adulthood and self-discovery, featuring a protagonist reconciling with her demons? (Is there a novel that you, dear reader, posit as comparable to The Catcher in the Rye, told from the perspective of a young woman?) If such a novel does exist, it has received only a fraction of the accolades and reputation as J.D. Salinger’s novel, and probably not for a total deficit in quality.
In an interview with Pif Magazine about Carrie Pilby fifteen years ago, the interviewer asked Caren Lissner how she felt about a genre he called “chick lit.” Lissner replied that she was thankful “chick lit” was more popular than it used to be, otherwise Carrie Pilby may not have been as successful. If I were Lissner, I may have used the opportunity to denounce the hideous nomenclature of this genre. What is chick lit? You know, besides a disrespectful name for a category of books whose only commonality is that they feature a female protagonist—a quality that researchers will discover 51% of the population possesses! For how many centuries have people dismissed women’s perspectives as a “niche” interest, as though women did not contribute to the creation, evolution, and endurance of written language in its practical and artistic form? Why are books and movies about female characters “chick lit” and “chick flicks,” when books and movies about men are distinguished from each other by their content, not their protagonists? How long will subjects that deal with “feminine” struggles be considered frivolous and uninteresting? I’m talking about the reason S.E. Hinton, J.K. Rowling, and so many other female writers used names that obscured their gender, for crying out loud.
If you’re still with me, dear reader, then I’ll leave it here, at this: Carrie Pilby’s character is not the equivalent to Holden Caulfield, because while they are both entitled yet arrogant youths, Carrie is more intelligent, self-motivated, and compassionate than Holden ever was, and yet more readers probably adore Holden than they do Carrie.
Having said all that, I would also like to add that Kara, the only other female character to make it into this story, is by far the most interesting person in this book to me. She is intelligent, witty, playful, and energetic. Whereas Carrie is self-pitying and entitled, Kara knows it’s just the way of the game and finds (albeit sometimes dumb) solutions. I was so disappointed that Carrie didn’t end up having a crush on her.
I found most of the other characters pretty boring. I empathized with Dr. Petrov, who had to put up with Carrie’s incessantly poor attitude.
- Who was your favorite character?
- Do you pay attention to the author when you’re picking out a book?
The plot is incredibly simple: Carrie is sad and lives in New York City, so she has a few awkward experiences and gains some insight about life. I’m not going to embellish; while the protagonist is highly intelligent, the story is not. However, that was clearly not the goal of this novel, because this is a story about a young woman’s emotional journey, not her physical journey.
It covers a time period from pre-Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, and in the span of that time, not much happens, except for a snow storm, a couple dinner dates, and some therapy sessions. The “action” is mostly internal monologue and various social settings, such as when Carrie goes on a date with a guy named Matt from the personals, who advertised himself as an engaged man looking for a relationship on the side. (No matter how many times I read Matt’s rationalizations, it still just seems wrong.)
This book is so narrator-heavy that it reads much like a journal, thought processes often ambling and circular, making claims, then thinking her way to a contradicting conclusion—but this is precisely what and how Carrie realizes her big issue, which is that life is complicated. And even though she swears she’s always right, sometimes she’s really wrong.
Additionally, this book is adorably dated to a time in NYC when people used newspaper personal ads, rented DVD’s from corner stores, and used landlines with answering machines. How cute and nostalgic.
- Do you like how Carrie’s New Year’s Eve ended?
- If you made a to-do list of 5 things to get out of your comfort zone, what would they be?
Look, do I even need to write it? Obviously the movie isn’t as good as the book. Actually, the movie just isn’t good at all.
So, they made Carrie Pilby into a movie a couple years ago. If you’re curious, you can find it on Netflix, but I wouldn’t recommend wasting your time, for a few different reasons:
First of all, this book should have never been adapted to a movie. It’s a fun book because of the narrator’s voice, whose rambling thoughts comprise a majority of the text. But it’s all inner monologue! Of course this would be a boring movie! Carrie is a lonely asshole genius who lives in her own head, so needless to say, it was a foolish move to try to sell this on screen.
And so, what I can only imagine is for that very reason, the movie contained several diversions from the original book—for example, in the movie, Carrie calls her father to tell on Dr. Petrov for having an affair, but when a woman answers his phone, Carrie finds out that her father is engaged to a woman with a child and will not be coming home for Christmas, but rather wants Carrie to fly to London (which Carrie hates) to visit them (who she also hates, in the moment). In the book, Carrie never tries to rat out Dr. Petrov, and her father has no love interest nor flakes out on his Christmas plans with Carrie.
I assume that these changes were made to “movie-fy” the book, or make it more interesting as a movie. This is the precise reason why I hate when screenwriters get their hands on good, respectable books and muddle them up with their predictable and uninspired Hollywood drama. (Has anyone been watching Little Fires Everywhere? Talk about massacring the text.)
I think that, as media consumers in 2020, we are too inundated with action and drama. We are desensitized to war, violence, and hunger; we see flying cars and Hollywood explosions; we watch the pandemic death tolls for real, human lives climb every day. Celebrities flaunt sex and drugs; actors have affairs and secret children; every movie has to have a murder. After we digest all that loud, aggressive, dramatic content, it’s easy to read Carrie Pilby and conclude, “It needs more drama.” But that’s not life! Many of the most phenomenal literary works or movies in existence are beautiful because of their extraordinary contemplation upon a small, tender aspect of human life. (Besides, I know Carrie would have something snarky to say about those sell-out screenwriters.)
Also, the actor who plays Carrie also has this confusing accent, which seems to be an equal parts British-American accent, and has the same affect of someone speaking with a limp. I never imagined Carrie as having a British accent because she grew up in America, and it was distractedly perplexing to me.
If you’ve read the book, the movie will be a letdown.
If you haven’t read the book, then if you watch the movie, you will never read it.
Earlier in this book review, I brought up The Catcher in the Rye in relation to Carrie Pilby. My professor and I weren’t the only ones to draw this likeness; in an interview with Kara Holden, the screenwriter of the Carrie Pilby movie (whose name is hilariously tied to both Carrie’s friend Kara and Holden Caulfield), Holden explains that she drew inspiration for the film adaptation from The Catcher in the Rye. As a huge Salinger fan, Holden said that when she read Carrie Pilby, “I thought that Carrie belonged to the Glass family that Salinger used to write about, so that excited me. I could never adapt Catcher in the Rye, but I could adapt this.”
This must explain why, in the movie, Carrie says her favorite book is Franny & Zooey, another Salinger classic featuring disillusioned youths with heavy internal monologues—and which is never once mentioned in Lissner’s novel.
In Lissner’s interview with Pif, she too makes a passing reference to The Catcher in the Rye and Salinger. (She asks, “Would Catcher in the Rye be as interesting if we knew every single thing about what Salinger did every day?”) From this, I can only deduce that, if she mentions him so freely, Salinger is one of Lissner’s inspirations as a writer, and that she herself may liken her book with his classic.
Having read both Carrie Pilby and biographical literature about Salinger, it does seem likely to me that she may have drawn inspiration from his life and work, as Salinger himself frequently had affairs with intelligent yet beautiful younger women, like David and Carrie—although this could have been merely an homage or a coincidence.
So, is Carrie Pilby our Holden Caulfield?
Or is Carrie Pilby our Carrie Pilby, and we shouldn’t even compare the two?
Or do we not even want to claim Carrie Pilby?
What makes us love a book or love a character? And what makes us love reading about a character who is hard to love?
I’ve been thinking about Catcher vs. Carrie for years. I think the most profound conclusion I’ve reached is exactly the same conclusion that Carrie herself reached, at the end of the novel.
Life is complicated. Things aren’t often black-and-white, but rather swimming in shades of gray. Male or female perspective—present or past—old or young—life is grappling, struggling, searching, hoping, trying. And both Carrie and Holden gives us a friend among the ether, a paper companion to turn to for lessons, laughter, and friendship.
The May Slanted Spines Book List reading is The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich! To participate, order a copy and read along! Make sure to follow @slantedspines on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook to keep up with all Slanted Spines content and book discussions! To view the entire booklist for 2020, view the main post, or view my book reviews page for more.