‘The Book of Essie’ by Meghan MacLean Weir ⭐⭐⭐⭐

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A debut novel of family, fame, and religion that tells the emotionally stirring, wildly captivating story, of the seventeen-year old daughter of an evangelical preacher, star of the family’s hit reality show, and the secret pregnancy that threatens to blow their entire world apart.

Esther Ann Hicks–Essie–is the youngest child on Six for Hicks, a reality television phenomenon. She’s grown up in the spotlight, both idolised and despised for her family’s fire-and-brimstone brand of faith. When Essie’s mother, Celia, discovers that Essie is pregnant, she arranges and emergency meeting with the show’s producers: Do they sneak Essie out of the country for an abortion? Do they pass the child off as Celia’s? Or do they try to arrange a marriage — and a ratings-blockbuster wedding?

Meanwhile Essie is quietly pairing herself up with Roarke Richards, a senior at her school with a secret of his own to protect. As the newly formed couple attempt to sell their fabricated love story to the media–through exclusive interviews with an infamously conservative reporter named Liberty Bell–Essie finds she has questions of her own: What was the real reason for her sister leaving home? Who can she trust with the truth about her family? And how much is she willing to sacrifice to win her own freedom?

Seventeen-year-old Esther “Essie” Hicks knows no other life than being on TV. Star of Six for Hicks, a show that follows her fundamentalist family. The show has been airing since before Essie was born which along with her family’s extreme religious views makes her an outcast at school. But Essie is about to shock them all: she’s pregnant.

It is decided that Essie should be married as soon as possible so her mother, Celia, begins looking for a suitable husband. Roarke Richards, a football star in the year above, is the approached after he’s been deemed the perfect candidate and preparations soon begin.

After an interview to discuss her plans after graduation, Essie offers the journalist, Liberty Bell, a series of exclusive interviews covering her upcoming marriage. Though she’s taken aback by the offer, after all Essie has only minutes ago declared she was seeing her first boyfriend, Libby accepts the offer. But as we later learn Essie has her own motives for offering her the deal.

As plans are made for a wedding special that will boost the ailing show’s ratings, we learn more of Essie’s plan, watch as she and Roarke become closer, and find out dark secrets about her family that would tear them and their media empire apart if revealed.

I had heard that this book took an honest look at what it was like to grow up in religious fundamentalism, but other than that I had no idea what to expect. We first meet Essie when she’s eavesdropping on a meeting between her mother and some of the people who run their show as they discuss her pregnancy. When she dropped her bombshell she knew that any decisions made would not be hers. Like every other decision throughout her life it will be made by the people she’s listening to, only this time Essie has a plan to steer things into going her way. With the inevitable decision she should be married made, Essie drops the breadcrumbs to lead her mother to the “right” candidate and, as Essie hoped, it is decided that she should marry Roarke Richards, a football star a year older than Essie. His parents are invited for a meeting where a proposal is made by Celia and her team. Roarke is aghast when his parents first tell him of the idea and is adamant he would never marry Essie. But after she takes him aside at school she wins him over, though it still isn’t clear why she chose him and what her full plan is.

Part of Essie’s plan involves tracking down her sister, Lissa, who left the family when she was 18 and hasn’t been back or spoken to them since. To do this she enlists the help of journalist Liberty Bell, who is well known for the blog and podcast she had as a teenager, and the book she wrote preaching her religious doctrine, which included homophobia. She was raised in what she now realises was a cult and still carries guilt over the death of her twin sister, Justice, when they were children. At 21 Libby had her eyes opened and used the money she’d made from her book to fund her escape from the cult. But her past still haunts her and limits the jobs she can get as a journalist, which is how she ends up interviewing Essie about her plans after graduation one afternoon. But I couldn’t help but wonder if Essie was also looking at Libby as someone who could help her find a way out of her life. There’s no one more perfect for helping her escape than someone who has fled a similar existence themselves.

Whilst reading this book I was struck by three thoughts: that I’m in love with the name Essie, this book reminds me of the Duggar family, and that I’m glad my eyes were opened to indoctrination and the faults of some organised religion. While my own experience wasn’t of fundamentalism, I do know how easy it is to believe in things blindly because it’s all you’ve ever known and how hard it is when you begin to question that. The way this book highlights extreme religion, religious indoctrination, and the misuse of religion, all without judgement of those who believe without question and don’t take part in the murkier aspect of things, made it very relatable and will no doubt educate a lot of people. Faith and religion isn’t bad, but using those things to control, exploit, abuse or incite hatred is. And is those things that this book is critical of. Essie exhibits tremendous bravery in her plan to bring the terrible truth out of the shadows while knowing it is at a huge personal cost. I thought her character was well-written, though there were times I didn’t like her decisions but often these things were borne out of inexperience through her age or upbringing.

The Book of Essie covers numerous topics such as religion, fame, family, and motherhood. It is also a story about independence, being true to yourself, and standing up for what is right. The story was readable and though I wouldn’t describe it as ‘gripping’, it did hold my interest. even though I guessed the dark secret early on I enjoyed reading how Essie dealt with it and the choices she made. I was completely surprised however when her full intention for having Libby involved and was on captivated as this part of the story as it unfolded. This is a great debut novel that shows how you can break free of your past and find happiness in who you really are.

Out Now.

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