IN LIVING ROOMS across America, reality television stars are telling viewers they want the world to know the truth — about their families, or their quest for love, or their sordid pasts. That’s why they’ve made the courageous decision to expose their ugliest secrets and vulnerabilities (after checking to make sure hair and makeup were available for touch-ups). Their desires are simple: Know me! Love me! Vote for me!
Real Happy Family, Caeli Wolfson Widger’s debut novel, is an authentic story about the artifice of reality television and America’s obsession with it. It’s no small order to find depth in a genre synonymous with vapid depravity, but Widger does — not in the shows themselves, but in the complicated dynamics of a family willing to put their dysfunction on display. Widger’s narrative plays on the “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” trope, only our protagonist is not an aristocratic general’s wife from St. Petersburg but a vacuous tweaker from Fresno. Oddly enough, Real Happy Family falls in the Tolstoyan literary tradition. (Russian literature and reality television, together at last!) Widger offers both a scathing social critique and a sympathetic look at relationships and moral indiscretions (infidelity, lies, drugs, the whole megillah) in 2014 Southern California — America writ large. Set primarily in Los Angeles, the novel resembles the city itself, where a superficial veneer belies a more complicated truth.
Colleen Branch is a pruned bonsai of a woman who loves diet pills and her treadmill more than her husband. Her life’s aspiration, to leave the Inland Empire for Anaheim and become a Disney princess, was promptly squashed when she got pregnant after high school. Naturally, her unborn child inherits her unrealized ambition.
Fast-forward 18 years. Colleen’s daughter Lorelei is an aspiring actress of dubious talent, her only credits a commercial for a genital warts vaccine and a short-lived stint on Flo’s Studio, an eco-fashion reality show. Manipulative and selfish, Lorelei is willing to do pretty much anything to score some “mote” (her slang for meth, because it gives her motivation). Colleen is blind to her daughter’s transgressions, and occasionally enables them. Everyone else, including Lorelei’s half brother Darren, an aspiring filmmaker, and his wife Robin, an agent with an eye for the next big thing who begrudgingly reps Lorelei, considers the dull starlet a train wreck waiting to happen. Not that the supporting cast isn’t burdened with their own problems: Robin spends the first half of the novel injecting her belly with fertility drugs, while Lorelei’s father Carl is busy trying to keep his marriage intact.
The novel is steeped in celebrity culture, and this backdrop is part of what gives the book its humor and verve. In Widger’s Los Angeles, people go to solstice fêtes instead of spring flings. They enjoy plant-based diets and call their taste for omusubi an addiction. Vanity Buddhists part ways with un-ironic Namastes. Chic is equated with sustainable and DIY; indulgence and all things processed signal a lack of sophistication. Widger is spot-on in depicting the disingenuousness with which people strive to come off as “natural” and “authentic.” This is important insofar as it sets the stage for Lorelei’s manipulative drama: being “real” is merely a never-ending performance.
When the novel opens, Lorelei has gone missing and a worried Colleen is seeking solutions. But let’s back up. Colleen is envious of her daughter, yet her sense of purpose is contingent upon Lorelei’s “success.” She pushes her daughter to maintain a “Pilates body,” then obsesses over her own aging (but still astonishingly good) figure. When Lorelei cites plastic surgery statistics and Jennifer Aniston’s pre-rhinoplasty nose in Leprechaun as evidence of why she needs breast implants to achieve her dreams, Coleen is hesitant. Then Lorelei says the words every mother wants to hear: “We need to stay a team. You’re the most important person in my life.” Colleen immediately gives in, and while her weakness masquerading as motherly love is disturbing, Widger doesn’t take the easy route of depicting her with disdain. Instead, Colleen’s inner turmoil over the decision comes into focus; we learn “she never stops feeling uneasy about putting her daughter under the knife.” Shallow and warped she may be, but Colleen really wants whats best for her daughter — even if it means sacrificing her little girl so she can transform into the woman her mother never had the opportunity to become.
Yet “what’s best for Lorelei” and maintaining Lorelei’s loyalty don’t always align. Fueled by good intentions, Colleen sabotages her daughter's shot at reality stardom with an on-air rant when a black contestant is chosen instead of Lorelei as the next Flo’s Studio contestant: “You’re all fucking phonies! Pretending like you’re more real than everyone else...You didn’t care about picking the best person...You needed some dark skin and some more dykey hair to round out your clique.” Her racist tirade goes viral on YouTube, and, again, the irony is pitch perfect: “reality” is something to aspire to — until it becomes too real. The problem is as old as Icarus: the warmth of the spotlight keeps drawing dreamers in until they get scorched and burned. The twist is that an audience exacerbates the shame. It’s searing public humiliation, the kind that makes one want to self-sabotage and self-medicate. Instead of elevating her daughter to the next level, Colleen ignites her downward spiral. Humiliated, Lorelei runs off to Reno with her meth-head boyfriend and slips further into addiction. The daughter is punished for the sins of the mother.
Widger’s prose really moves; it’s as if she has her foot on the accelerator the entire time. The novel’s shifting perspective is most fun when Lorelei is at the wheel — reading her is like partying with a speed freak without the awful comedown. The family foibles branch out into numerous subplots; each familial relationship illuminates a different, very zeitgeisty social ill of contemporary culture. But once beyond the mother-daughter relationship these Hollywood tales feel too telegraphed, a little too straight from the headlines of US Weekly. (Darren gets a crush on a nubile starlet on the set of his first feature film, for example.) But while the minor characters feel a bit too “Central Casting,” this motley cast builds toward a well-conceived tabloid climax. As a last resort mission to bring Lorelei home, Colleen arranges a convergence on the hit reality show Real Happy Family. It’s the perfect redemption for Colleen after her horrible behavior — show how good a mother you are by sorting out family issues in front of millions of viewers! One need only watch 30 seconds of the cringe-worthy interview with Kate Gosselin, her twin daughters, and GMA’s Savannah Guthrie to recognize that Widger is onto something here. Mothers and daughters have long been competitors and co-conspirators, helping the other succeed one moment and then vying for the spotlight the next. The media is full of “momagers” who seemingly live vicariously through their daughters, even attempting to regain their youth via the plastic surgery their offspring’s success affords them. So did the Gosselin girls speak their truth? Who knows. Whatever the truth, millions of viewers were saying their names and validating their “reality.”
It has often been said that as a society, we are obsessed with reality television because watching other people’s drama allows us to take comfort in our own miserable lives. Yet perhaps the shows that seem exploitative to viewers offer some kind of salvation for their participants, and not just the monetary kind. Is the impetus to perform real life for the cameras any different from posting a photoshopped selfie? (Interestingly, there’s even a plot treatment for the Branch convergence episode of Real Happy Family at the end of the book; it captures how real lives are condensed into “real” palatable narratives.)
Today, fewer people seek redemption in religion; instead, reality television functions as a public confessional and a crowd of millions bear witness to the sins of strangers. Lorelei’s quest for reality stardom may stem from shallow narcissism and Real Happy Family might be contrived, but the longing to make our authentic selves more visible is as real as it gets. And it’s the people who feel hurt, alone, or invisible that are most willing to do what it takes to be seen. Lorelei and gang provide a cautionary tale about what happens when one “truth” must match audience expectations: Start living for the spectators, Real Happy Family warns, and risk becoming a spectacle. Then again, each unhappy family manages in their own way.