THE STYLIST by Cai Emmons


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The author of His Mother’s Son (2003) ponders gender differences and layered haircuts in her second novel.

Hayden Risley is a stylist. After she runs away from her semi-patrician Connecticut family and spends a little time voluntarily homeless in California, she ends up working at a pleasantly bustling shop in New Jersey. Her quiet life is given a jolt when she befriends a transsexual, and she is shaken yet again when she must travel to Costa Rica to care for her injured—and estranged—father. Hayden is also a Harvard dropout. She takes hair very seriously, and so does this novel. The literature on salons is extensive, even including scholarly treatises on African-American beauty culture. Emmons is doggedly literary (hers may be the first book on hairstyling to contain epigrams by Paul Auster and Virginia Woolf and a reference to the work of Eugène Ionesco), and occasionally she conjures a resonant metaphor: “He touched the back of his hair gently, as women do, as if an infant slept beneath its layers.” There is much philosophizing here—on the nature of transformation, on the differences between men and women, on the necessity to tell stories, on the need for fruit- and floral-scented sanctuaries—but it’s seldom illuminating. Hayden’s mother, a delicate pre-Raphaelite Yankee, and her domineering and inaccessible father are exceedingly familiar. Although the author makes note of the class disparities between wealthy tourists and the servants who make their exotic idylls possible, she still presents the tropics as a paradise in which white people get to reinvent themselves. The novel’s greatest weakness, though, is its dull heroine. At best, she’s a blank onto which readers of her demographic—youngish and educated but not particularly intellectually curious—can project themselves.

“Women’s fiction” of the most middling sort, and a culturally privileged exercise in navel-gazing.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-06-089895-3
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Perennial/HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 2007