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Adult Drama: And Other Essays

Books & Literature Jun 9, 2024

by Grace Grocholski

As we learn in the opening essay of the collection Adult Drama, the designer and bad boy of British fashion, Alexander McQueen, had a Shakespearean tattoo: “Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind”. It is a fitting sentiment for the controversial designer McQueen. During his brief life he explored themes of romanticism, violence, sexuality, and death in his work. Fashion, although perceived with the eyes, contains clues to intellectual interpretation, if one is versed in its references. Natalie Beach expertly traces McQueen’s contribution to fashion, noting that his early collections introduced the impractical and comically low-cut “bumster” trousers, which led to the ubiquity of low-rise jeans in the early to mid 2000s. In this opening essay, “Distressed Denim”, Beach’s focus is not just on fashion (including the influence of Mike Jeffries’ vision on the brand Abercrombie & Fitch) but her experience as a young woman growing up in a specific cultural moment. With a first-person critical eye, she is able to examine the unseen forces that shaped her life, while capturing the tumultuous feelings of adolescence.

Her essay collection’s central piece, “I Was Caroline Calloway”, is a viral essay originally published in 2019 in New York Magazine’s the Cut, which details her fraught relationship and collaboration with the influencer Caroline Calloway. Beach originally teamed with Calloway by agreeing to write her Instagram post captions as she traveled abroad. Their arrangement grew to include Beach ghostwriting Calloway’s memoir. You’ll need to read Beach’s account for the full story, in all its nuances. The original essay is re-published here, along with a follow-up piece reflecting on its ripple effects on her life. Beach’s story was picked up for development into a TV series and the attention it received online was unprecedented. To some, Beach was a sympathetic figure, the friend who was mistreated and taken advantage of in service of Calloway’s gain. To others, she was pathetic and self-abnegating, denying her role in the drama. The truth, as Beach reveals, is always somewhere in between.

Here her writing is polished and precise, yet surprising and funny. The braiding of history with present day trends and her own personal narrative is engaging throughout. This is a particular tone that some readers may enjoy more than others. Her writing feels urgent because of the subject matter, as though Natalie couldn’t wait to grow up fast enough to tell these stories. The quicksand funhouse of crafting a personality, and the lessons learned through accumulated experience are also touchstones. The distance between real life and a crafted image pulls at the edges of Natalie’s awareness and she is attuned to the artifice in the everyday, especially in the writer’s tendency to self- mythologize.

In one of the lesser pieces recounting a frat-boy challenge, Beach reveals a thesis of sorts: “Unlike most things we’re forced to do, I don’t mind growing up. I’ve found that coming of age is less a matter of becoming than of letting go of the more ludicrous notions of who you are. The stinging sensation only comes from breaking the promises made in your youth.” As she leaves adolescence behind, Beach charts these growing pains, giving them room to breathe and settle.

The remaining essays in the book eclectically explore young adulthood, capitalism, and storytelling – both as an art and as a survival mechanism. Several essays chart an experience working a particular job, like a shopgirl, and the wider context of those positions in society. A whimsical essay on early-twenties bohemia, “The Gowanus Dolphin”, captures the idealism, energy, and temporality of youth. An essay about celebrity estate sales reflects on the things we leave behind, the ways our possessions can reveal the shape of our lives, and the uneasy voyeurism of going through other peoples’ belongings. She reprises the Caroline Calloway saga in her final essay, trying to untangle the knot of their relationship. In her final line, she reveals where she stands.

These essays are a mixed combination of self-deprecating and self-serious, with some working better than others. Beach is a strong, skilled writer, however, and several of these pieces can stand alone. Taken as a whole they create a unique portrait of a young woman finding her voice, reckoning with previous beliefs and experiences, and trying to understand herself as a person in the world.

Grace Grocholski is a part-time librarian, full-time bookworm. In her spare time, she enjoys running, baking, and feeding her online chess addiction.

Adult Drama: And Other Essays

Natalie Beach
Publisher: Hanover Square Press 272 pp., Published: June 20th, 2023