By Robyn Okrant; Center Street; 257 pages
The last few years have seen a glut of books about people deciding to get off the beaten path. In No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet, and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process, the Beavans of New York City eschewed even electricity in order to reduce their carbon footprint.
Robyn Okrant’s yearlong attempt to live what Oprah Winfrey calls the “best life” (the vagueness of the dictate is surpassed only by its vacuity) did not compel her to forego routine comforts. If anything, it made her do the opposite and become enmeshed in the peculiar blend of high consumerism and faux simple life that has, ironically, made Winfrey one of the richest women on earth.
Beginning January 1, 2008, Okrant, a Chicagoan, watched the Oprah show every weekday. She took notes on everything that Oprah wanted her fans to do and buy. In February, for instance, they were told to buy the “10 things every woman needs to have in her closet.” These included a trench coat; a black T-neck; and leopard-print flats. She also set about having an “Intentional Dialogue Exercise” with her husband, as directed by Oprah. All of this was recorded in a blog, which became the basis for her book.
Over the course of the year, she saw some benefits, like greater energy after improving her diet, and acquired a wardrobe that makes her look like, well, no one in particular. The book’s cover features her in a prime Oprah ensemble: white Brooks Brothers shirt, a large ring, dark wash jeans, leopard-print flats, and her dark wavy hair schooled into proper suburban docility. The result is a blandness that she often regretted.
Living Oprah is mildly entertaining, and the author mildly likeable. Okrant is typical of a certain kind of Chicago progressive/liberal. Instructed to give to a charity, she chooses the lesser-known Chicago Books to Women in Prison. At a Celine Dion concert, her friend Joe points out a rare entity in the crowd: A person of color. After Oprah instructs her to adopt an animal, she brings home a cat and names it Selmarie, after her favorite café. It’s there that another patron, recognizing Okrant from a press story and knowing full well that she’s in earshot, proclaims her “crazy.” It’s a sad moment, but it does prompt some questions in the reader: Is Okrant crazy? What did she get from all this living by Oprah? And are the results worth it?
According to Okrant, she embarked on the project because “It’s vitally important for women to question the sources of influence and persuasion in our lives…I want to get to the bottom of why this cycle exists and find out how I’m complicit in it.” Well, maybe. Or maybe she did this because it was an easy book project that might become a movie, inspired by the success of Julie Powell’s Julia and Julia, a record of her making every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Vol. 1). Like Powell, Okrant began recording her experiment as a blog. Like Powell, she’s a stickler for following through on all the instructions, and so on.
Regardless of what might have motivated her to embark upon the experiment, it’s only fair to ask what we might gain from it. Do we learn anything about why women follow her with such devotion? Well, not really, and not more than what we glean from even the most random observations of the show. A lot of these women seem incapable of discerning the enormous gulf between them and Oprah, and seriously consider her their best friend. At least Okrant keeps reminding us of the disparity between her life and that of Winfrey, who famously said that she likes her bed sheets changed—and ironed—every day: “At that point in my life, I was digging around in the cushions of my sofa for enough quarters to do my laundry.” Winfrey travels in a Gulf Stream jet, which is hardly ecologically sound, but she admonishes her viewers to buy energy-efficient bulbs.
But there are other deeper contradictions and bits of misinformation that Winfrey has been rightly criticized for. In May 2009, Newsweek published an extensive review and criticism of Winfrey’s pushing of various dubious health remedies. Living Oprah has little to say about the disasters engendered by Winfrey’s tireless sense that money can buy anything. In 2007, she established a school for girls in South Africa, and the school has been hit by two sex scandals. All the while, Winfrey has been railing on behalf of draconian sex-offender laws in this country, the sort that are usually over-reaching and result in people being jailed for non-sexual offenses.
Okrant ignores all this and writes cheerily only of the minor contradictions, like the jet, in a style that makes us wish for a moratorium on books based on blogs. While the original material appears to have been tweaked for the book, the style is the same as a blog, and annoyingly so: “My goodness, it’s been such a busy month, I never told you that Jim and I are currently living with less.” The constant present tense makes sense for blogs, but in a book? It’s just annoying.
Okrant doesn’t really help us understand why women act the way they do around Oprah. If anything, the lesson we learn is a sad one: That even otherwise intelligent women like Okrant can get swept away by Oprah’s consumerism (Buy more! Be Happier!) masquerading as a “best life.” After 12 chapters, we know more about how women live by Oprah and much less of why, and we’re left with the slightly uneasy sense that we’ve been hoodwinked into yet another attempt to turn a “year-in-the-life” project into a successful media deal. Perhaps the reality show is next.
Originally published in Windy City Times, February 17, 2010.