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I Was Told There’d Be Cake, Essays by Sloane Crosley

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There is a quote on the cover of this book from Jonathan Lethem: “Soane Crosley is another mordant and mercurial wit from the realm of Sedaris and Vowell.” And he’s right. Her style is very similar to those of David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell. I should have taken Lethem’s word for it and stuck these essays back on the shelf, as I’m really not partial either of those authors. But I didn’t, because I was craving essays and I found the book for only a dollar.

Sloane’s writing is polished and tight. Her essays are well planned out and executed, and she can be funny. There’s little doubt about it; she can write a good essay. The problem? Well, I had a few.

The first problem: many of the essays are about living in New York City (by which she clearly means Manhattan). The kinds of experiences she has in The City are experiences that anyone who has lived in The City has had, and that anyone who hasn’t lived in The City has seen happen countless times in movies about The City or can easily imagine happening in them. The exaggerated difficulty of moving to an apartment only blocks away? Check. Leaving wallets in cabs and the surprising kindness of strangers? Check. Of course, the stuff of everyday experience often makes for incredible writing, but Sloane lacks the originality to pull it off. She gets close, at times, to something special, but never quite close enough.

The second problem: The essays that aren’t about The City are about her “typical, suburban” upbringing. She frequently refers to her childhood as “normal”, “boring”, and lacking culture, and, I get it–that is how white, middle class suburbia is depicted in mainstream U.S. discourse–but she doesn’t really take into account that maybe her reader ISN’T from the same background, or that her experience is not, in fact, the “default” growing up experience.

These problems are really the same problem: In these essays, Crosley repeatedly stresses the things about her city life that she  thinks are unique to her experience while mistakenly assuming the universality of the experiences who made her who she is before she came to New York. This leaves her with a very specific audience of readers that may not feel somewhat alienated by this collection of essays; readers who are demographically similar to herself. I think this is a shame, as I don’t think there’s any reason that a suburbs-to-city sort of narrative like this one needs to come across that way.

The final problem: Without passing judgment on Crosley herself, the voice she employed in this collection really turned me off through occasional self-centeredness, immaturity, and a seeming sense of entitlement. It’s clear that we don’t share a sense of humor, and probably wouldn’t get along that well if we met in real life.

I don’t mean this to sound as harsh as it does. I do think that Crosley is quite an accomplished writer and I did actually feel pleasure at times while reading her essays. I just don’t think she has all that much to say, really. Perhaps that will change with time and experience, in which case I’m sure she will be able to properly dazzle us with her wit and her fine way with words. On the other hand, if you like David Sedaris or Sarah Vowell you might enjoy I Was Told There’d Be Cake more than I did, and be more forgiving of its flaws.

Written by Emily Jane

March 17, 2011 at 4:59 am

8 Responses

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  1. Great review! I think even the move episode, no matter how used it has become, could be turned into something great with a bit of… spark?


    March 17, 2011 at 8:32 am

    • Thanks Alex! I think so too. Too bad that spark was lacking here!

      Emily Jane

      March 17, 2011 at 3:10 pm

  2. I know EXACTLY what you mean. So tired of the endless Being-A-Bright-Young-Thing-in-Manhattan stories. Good grief. One gets the impression New Yorkers are laboring under the misapprehension that everyone else is dying of envy and fascination to consume the minutiae of their lives.

    And while I enjoy listening to Sedaris and Vowell on the radio, their written stuff usually falls flat for me. Won’t be seeking this one out.


    March 18, 2011 at 4:34 pm

  3. Ugh, I’m tired of it too. And I LIVE in the city (and love it). So annoying, though.

    Emily Jane

    March 21, 2011 at 3:39 am

  4. Great review!
    “It’s clear that we don’t share a sense of humor, and probably wouldn’t get along that well if we met in real life.”
    I love how you put it- I usually feel the same way; if I can’t engage with the author’s voice, I get the feeling that we wouldn’t get along if we met in real life 🙂


    March 21, 2011 at 3:27 pm

    • Yeah, it can be a real barrier to staying interested, that’s for sure!

      Emily Jane

      March 30, 2011 at 1:41 am

  5. I disliked Sedaris but enjoyed Vowell… so now I’m unsure! The collection overall doesn’t sound so great, though I suppose I haven’t read or seen much set in NYC (basically, yes, I’ve not seen many movies. heh) so maybe it wouldn’t be as bad for me… though the suburban experiences growing up might also put me off.


    March 21, 2011 at 7:24 pm

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