Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Book Review: Barbarians at the PTA

By Jami Deise

With “Mean Moms” stories being so popular, it’s difficult these days to write a book that will stand out in this genre. Mean moms spawn mean daughters; what’s left to say? Author Dr. Stephanie Newman, a clinical psychologist, does have something new to say, and takes a fresh approach into the material. In Barbarians at the PTA, her second book (the first puts the characters of Mad Men on her couch), Newman’s protagonist is also a psychologist. When the bullying starts, Dr. Victoria Bryant observes it in a detached, clinical way that lets her give reasonable advice and respond in a restrained manner.

At least, that’s her intention.

When Victoria’s wedding comes to a halt in the most embarrassing way possible, she takes her 11-year-old daughter Rachel and moves out of New York City to the Westchester suburb of Mayfair. Having inherited an old home there from an aunt, and with several patients who live in the area, Victoria thinks she’s prepared for the lifestyle. But when Rachel and Victoria both become targets of the school’s PTA president, Lee DeVry, things quickly spiral out of control. Lee’s daughter makes sure Rachel is ostracized at school, and Rachel is devastated. And there’s nothing Victoria can say or do to make it better. As Lee makes sure that Rachel is kept away from birthday parties, late to soccer practice and even targeted online, none of Victoria’s psychological insight provides any help. Even worse, Victoria’s new boyfriend is an old friend of Lee’s. And when she complains about Lee’s machinations, he wonders who is the real villain, Victoria or Lee?

Amazon markets this book as a comedy, but truthfully it feels too true-to-life to be funny. Lee is a one-dimensional villain, almost unbelievable, but Rachel’s pain at sitting alone at the lunch table, her tears when she’s the subject of mean campaigns on social marketing, make the reader want to cry, not laugh. Victoria tries hard to understand and explain Lee’s motivations, but Lee’s actions in targeting a fifth-grader are so beyond the pale that any psychoanalysis falls short.

Bullies, male and female, have been around forever. When I was growing up, we were told that bullies were cowards and secretly fearful, and that’s why they picked on people weaker than they were. In fact, we should feel sorry for them. They were probably getting beaten up at home! Nowadays, bullies are more likely to be recognized as narcissists of any age; mean people who gain pleasure from other people’s pain. The truth may be somewhere in the middle—folks who enjoy hurting other people probably felt powerless and scared at some time in their lives. Nevertheless, it’s always satisfying to see bullies get their comeuppance, and for that payoff, it’s definitely worth taking on these Barbarians.

Thanks to Saichek Publicity for the book in exchange for an honest review.

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