Some Girlsby Jillian Lauren
Synopsis (from the jacket cover): At eighteen, Jillian Lauren was an NYU theatre school dropout with a tip about an upcoming audition. The ‘casting director’ told her that a rich businessman in Singapore would pay pretty American girls $20,000 if they stayed for two weeks to spice up his parties. Not exactly the whole truth. Soon, Jillian found herself on a plane to Borneo, where she would spend the next eighteen months in the harem of Prince Jefri Bolkiah, youngest brother of the Sultan of Brunei.
First line: “The Shah’s wife was unfaithful to him, so he cut off her head and summarily declared all women to be evil and thereby deserving of punishment.”
Review: Some Girls, once begun, is nearly impossible to put down — the type of story that you find yourself reading as you blow-dry your hair, walk your dog, and eat breakfast. If set aside for a moment, questions relentlessly haunt you until you delve back into the story — the premise of recording the experiences in a harem in Brunei is fascinating, no question.
However, what is most engaging about Some Girls is how possible this scenario becomes and especially how the author refuses to simplify her experiences into a cautionary tale. In many ways, Lauren’s attempts to forge an identity and a satisfying life will be familiar to most women. But along this journey, she makes a few decisions that lead her to a life few would imagine, nevermind experience.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I was a bit apprehensive before I read Some Girls. Not because I knew a harem was involved — which certainly piqued my curiosity — but because I had met the author, and this would be the first memoir I reviewed written by someone I had met. Jillian and her husband were part of the group of new adoptive parents my sister had the good fortune of meeting when she adopted her daughter. This period of time was fraught with anticipation and anxiety, obviously, and I was so grateful that she had such a warm group of people with whom to share this experience.
Memoirs can be tough to review regardless of affiliation — it is impossible to separate the writer from the writing, the protagonist from the author, the plot from the life — and I’ve received criticism from memoirists whose work I reviewed less than favorably, so having actually met Lauren only added to my trepidation. On the other hand, while I had met Lauren during an emotionally charged time in her life, I really did not know her as a person. Until I read Some Girls.
Lauren is courageous and generous with not only the fascinating details of her life in Brunei, but with her journey of reconciliation with her past, too. While she struggles with issues that will be familiar to all women, her experiences are deeper and more painful than most. However, Lauren refrains from turning her life into a morality tale — instead her voice is authentic and refuses to slip into comfortable, but often empty, platitudes of repentance. Lauren refuses to paint the prince as a villian — or herself as a manipulated victim. She is entirely aware of what her decisions may lead to — and acts with intention and fortitude. For this reason, Some Girls would be an excellent choice for a book club: Questions regarding morality and economics could result in hours of discussion.
But beyond the moral ramifications of Lauren’s choices, Some Girls is simply a great read. The prose is fast-paced and Lauren time-shifts seemlessly. A moment in the “present” will remind her of a past experience, that may or may not have influenced her actions, and she will slip into the past without ever losing the forward momentum of the narrative. In addition, her perspective on the present — and the past — is filled with metaphoric gems, like the following:
These days, my life has taken on a slower pace and it seems that the moon can wax and wane and wax again and the time has marked my life in only subtle ways — the slight deepening of the marionette lines around my mouth, the easing of a yoga posture, the straining of a friendship, perhaps, or the birth of a new one.
When you find yourself doing things you never dreamed of, it often happens in stages. You take a tiny step over the line, and then you advance to the next line.
This, the smell of low tide rising from the harbor, was how the nights in Beach Haven smelled. But how Beach Haven felt was something else. I remember that it seemed I breached the borders of my skin. The lights of the carnival and the taste of the hot, cinnamon-sugary morning doughnuts and the tickle of the sand crabs weren’t just something I felt from the outside in; they were a part of my body. They always had been. Brunei was the opposite. Every day I was further from my body. I was more disconnected all the time from the world around me. I noted the loss with some sadness but also with a kind of satisfaction. Not being able to feel your body was its own kind of safe harbor, its own kind of freedom.
Power tasted like an oyster, like I’d swallowed the sea, all its memories and calm and rot and brutality.
Lauren will publish her first novel soon, as well, and I look forward to reading it. In addition, I also hope she considers writing about her life as a mother — or her life between the ages of 20 and 36. My only suggestion for Some Girls would be that I wish it had continued to the present — I’m sure her journey to marriage and motherhood would be just as engaging. But the beauty of a memoir is that we get to choose what we share as our story — and the story of Some Girls is fascinating and thought-provoking as is.