You Have No Idea: a book review

Thursday, May 3, 2012
I consider myself a fairly prolific reader. As an English major, I've read a considerable amount of the "classics" and I'll read just about any genre (fiction or non) as long as the story has a strong human interest angle. But when You Have No Idea, a biography of Vanessa Williams, with contributions from mom Helen and ghostwritten by Irene Zutell, arrived on my doorstep (literally - the UPS man dropped it off), I realized I've never read a celebrity biography or a ghostwritten book.

And of all the celebrity biographies to land in my lap, one on Vanessa Williams?

While I certainly recognized the name, I truly had no idea about her life. (Q: Didn't she sing that Pocahontas song? A: Yes, yes she did.) I never watched Ugly Betty and her real success on the Billboard chart came in the early 90s, when I was too young to be paying much attention to the top 40.

Don't expect lush, detailed descriptions in You Have No Idea. The book's writing is bare bones. Thoughts aren't always completely finished because, I'm assuming, Zutell just didn't have enough information from her interviews with Vanessa to write more than a sentence on certain topics.

Clunky narration aside, I found myself fascinated by Vanessa's life. (It's always interesting to find out what makes successful people tick, no?) The eldest child of a hard working, double income family, Vanessa grew up as a member of one of just two black families in her New York hometown. Her entire family was gifted musically and Vanessa's childhood goal was to mimic Meryl Streep's career path and become a Broadway star. But Vanessa's success took on a life of its own. A Miss America crown, a nude photos scandal, and babies were just a few of the curveballs thrown at her.

I found I could admire many things about Vanessa's life. I admired her down-to-earth upbringing.(Although, obviously Helen didn't do a great job with the birds and bee talk, since both of Vanessa's now-defunct marriages involved an unexpected bun in the oven.) I admired her ability to stick with her dreams, even as she juggled motherhood. (She's the mother of four.) But Vanessa isn't completely immune from acting like a slightly out of touch celebrity. When you read about her "necessary" home renovations, you'll have a good chuckle and eye roll.

The book is narrated almost completely from Vanessa's point of view, with brief interjections from Helen here and there. Helen's contributions lend a certain gossipy touch to the entire book that at times feel distracting and extraneous, but are often humorous and down to earth. Helen's own story of rising above an unhappy childhood is compelling enough that I almost wished the narrative had been split into two books: one for Helen and one for Vanessa.

Will I be picking up another celebrity biography any time soon? Probably not. But this was a fun, fluffy read that I really rather enjoyed.

Have you ever read a celebrity biography? You can learn more about You Have No Idea over at the BlogHer book club.

Disclosure: I participated in this review for the BlogHer Book Club. I was compensated for my time and received a complimentary copy of the book. However, all opinions expressed in the review are my own.

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