Alexandra Penney is pretty much the woman you wanted to be when you grew up. She’s held editor positions at Vogue, Glamour, and Self. She owns an HermÃ¨s Kelly bag. She spends afternoons painting in her SoHo loft, a place where neighborhood friends throw pebbles at her window. After being dropped down a sock-wrapped key, everyone catches up over wine and gourmet cheese. Isn’t that the life?
But The Bag Lady Papers, a memoir that divulges Penney’s experience of losing her life’s savings to Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, isn’t just a story about Baccarat crystal and expense accounts. In fact the book, which is based on her popular Daily Beast blog series, is as much about that, as it is about blow-up dolls and fish markets.
The book opens on Penney as she prepares a lavish dinner party in her Upper East Side home. As she primps her dining room table, news of her trusted (or so she thought) financial investor’s arrest hits. Like an anxiety-filled dump truck, the intensity of Penney’s panic smacks us in the face. Will she need to sell her home and move in with her son? She pops a tranquilizer. Can she afford basic necessities? The notion of suicide enters her head. Will her bag lady fears – ever present in her mind, even at the height of her success – become reality?
Alternating between the worry-ridden present and her career-climbing past, the memoir’s chapters delve into Penney’s life as she goes from copywriter, to mother, to fish market cashier, to New York Times bestselling author, to broke artist with multiple mortgages to pay. But, The Bag Lady Papers doesn’t quite do her journey justice. The book’s introduction leaves the reader with a bad taste in her mouth. We are barely two pages into her story when the author is asking herself if she’ll ever be able to buy fresh flowers again. It’s difficult to sympathize with a stranger when you hardly have the facts.
Readers who make it through the first few chapters will find that Penney eventually hits a more narrative stride. Her rise to success, which includes helping to create the famous breast cancer awareness pink ribbon while Editor-in-Chief at Self, is one to be admired. The ironic thing is that the entire time she is working these incredible jobs, she yearns to give it up to fulfill her dream of becoming an artist. In fact, The Bag Lady Papers is in many ways a book about finding the path to make your dream possible. For Penney, this meant quitting her job as Glamour‘s Beauty Editor to go back to art school.
Throughout The Bag Lady Papers, Penney touches upon numerous topics, that have us asking for more. From women’s often hesitance to deal with money, to “bag lady fears” which plague successful women like Gloria Steinem and Lily Tomlin, these topics, if they’d been delved into deeper with Penney’s journalistic eye, would have provided incredible support to her personal story. There are hints that this book was written on a tight deadline (Penney mentions it herself and there are exhaustive lists taking up space throughout), which might be the cause of this oversight. This is just too complicated a story and too emotionally-charged, that you have to wonder what a second draft would have looked like. But perhaps in a few years – and with a bit more distance from the situation – Penney can tell us the story of how she rose back to the top.
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