Monday, July 24, 2017

Book Review: Amanda Wakes Up

By Jami Deise

In 1987, James L. Brooks released what some call his best romantic comedy ever, the Holly Hunter vehicle Broadcast News. The love triangle featured producer Jane Craig, who’s torn between field reporter Aaron (Albert Brooks) and pretty-boy anchor Tom (William Hurt). Refreshing because Jane ultimately chooses herself and her journalistic ethics over either man, the film is also an inside look at one of the major issues in broadcast journalism at the time—hiring attractive people as anchors over more intelligent, less pretty people. (It was rumored that William Hurt’s character was based on Peter Jennings.) One of the most iconic scenes in the film is when Jane feeds Tom questions through an earpiece, making it seem that he’s conversant on the foreign crisis he’s reporting on.

A lot’s happened in journalism in the past thirty years. Broadcasting has become narrowcasting, as viewers follow only the news sources that reflect their particular world views. Teenagers make up stories about politicians and watch them go viral; politicians cry “fake news” whenever news breaks that makes them look bad. Journalists receive death threats. With the stakes so high, is it still possible to set a romantic comedy in this world?

CNN co-host Alisyn Camerota certainly thinks so. Her debut novel, Amanda Wakes Up, is Broadcast News for the reality-TV presidential era. And while her heroine, Amanda Gallo, is more Bridget Jones than Jane Craig, the political environment she’s thrust into is very serious.

After stringer Amanda reports on a hostage situation in her bikini, her profile explodes and she’s hired by Benji Diggs, the millionaire who owns FAIR News. (DC insiders may wonder if Camerota deliberately uses the same name as one of the most anti-immigrant groups there is, the Federation for American Immigration Reform.) FAIR runs a morning show, Wake Up America, and Benji promises Amanda that he wants to air both sides of the issues. But Amanda, raised by a liberal mother who’s supporting the country’s first female presidential candidate, Virginia Wynn, seems to be the only one who cares about the other side. Former actor Victor Fluke is running on a pro-business, anti-immigrant platform (“They’re American’ts!”) and Wake Up America is the only show where he can speak unchallenged. With a co-anchor, Rob, who seems more interested in his looks and his celebrity friends, and producers fresh out of college, Amanda is out of her league and can’t challenge bad statistics about gun control and abortion. As Fluke and Wake Up America become more and more prominent, Amanda’s liberal friends and her boyfriend Charlie accuse her of helping Fluke’s campaign, and Amanda begins to see them as close-minded when it comes to Fluke’s supporters. Depending on which questions she asks that morning, she’s attacked by conservatives or liberals as being against or for Fluke. At the same time, there’s whispers of scandals around Fluke’s past, and Amanda would love to report on them…if only Benji would let her.

Although Camerota swears she did not have a crystal ball, Wynn and Fluke do seem to be modeled on Clinton and Trump, and some of the events in the book (violence at Fluke rallies, for instance) are eerily prescient. Although the presidential campaign provides a timeline for the book, it does not dominate it. Rather, Camerota artfully demonstrates the hollowness behind news coverage; executives (Les Moonves, anyone?) who were more interested in their ratings than examining the damage that was being done to the country. Amanda herself, who was hired because she looked good in a bikini, may actually be the Tom in this case rather than the Jane. She’s too uninformed to hold her own in a debate with Fluke, blaming producers for not giving her enough information when Fluke badmouths Planned Parenthood. (Reporters who cover abortion issues are well-versed in the research provided by the Guttmacher Institute; Amanda seems to have never heard of them.) She naively believes that Fluke supporters are good people because they are nice to her, never wondering what their attitudes might be if she weren’t the reporter making Fluke look good. Amanda tries earnestly to live out the promise Benji made when he hired her, to see and report on both sides, never realizing that in some cases, there is really only one.

Camerota seems torn between whether she’s writing chick lit or a satire. That may be the result of decisions made at the editor or publisher level, though. While there were several plot points that had me cheering on Amanda, ultimately the book’s ending feels forced. It’s a reminder that while truth may be stranger than fiction, fiction is often happier. (And, as Amanda tells her mother, so are conservatives.) Still, the book works until the last few pages. And even if Camerota set out to write a satire, unfortunately events transpired to make Amanda Wakes Up too close to reality to be called an exaggeration. In fact, with a Twitter-happy President under investigation for colluding with Russia, real life has become the satire.

Thanks to Viking for the book in exchange for an honest review.

1 comment:

Janine said...

Sounds like an interesting story