“No matter what you hear, fame and power usually don’t change a person. It amplifies who they are already. Some people grow more sinister with money. Some people grow greedier. And some people do good things.”
Flashback to 1999: my best friends, twin sisters, and I were just picked up from our after-school program. My mom packs all of us into the backseat of her Jetta. Once we’re settled and buckled in, we don’t even have to ask, she loads up the CD we’ve been waiting all day to hear. We roll all the windows down and start singing, screaming, along: “SLAM IT TO LEFT (if you’re having a good time), SHAKE IT THE RIGHT (if you know that you feel fine), CHICAS TO THE FRONT (garbled sounds...AHHHH).” And we would repeat our sing-along as many times as my mom could stomach “Spice Up Your Life” at an ear-shattering volume.
We’d started this tradition of blasting music in our parents’ cars when we got our hands on the Titanic soundtrack a couple years earlier and chose to shout instead of sing along to Céline Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On.” God bless my poor mother. Though, I’m pretty sure she liked it, or at the very least couldn’t help but sing along as we played the same album for the tenth time that week. We were so young and full of energy which we got to burn off with our antics, and she got a crash course in Top 40 hits. It was a win-win.
Before I got started writing the above, I set up a playlist on YouTube, heavy on the Spice Girls, and I am happy to confirm that I can still belt out about 80% of the lyrics I had down pat 20 years ago. If memory serves, my friends and I loved Spice Girls enough to even use some of our after-school time choreographing a dance to “Stop” (“stop right now, thank you very much, I need somebody with a human touch…”). The sisters were Baby Spice and Posh Spice, while I, the redhead, stepped into the role of Ginger Spice. Beyoncé we were not, but it was sort of cute. We were serious fans. We still are. And we’re still best friends (“make it last forever, friendship never ends!”).
The same can’t be said of the fictional music group Gloss in Elissa R. Sloan’s distinctive debut. Circa 2017, three of the young women (save for Cassidy) are thrown back together to promote an upcoming movie they cameoed in, fifteen years after the height of their fame. They get along, but their discomfort is clear from the first page, and their world is rocked minutes later, in the middle of a radio interview, when they learn that their missing fourth member has died.
For fans of Daisy Jones and the Six and Emily Gould’s Perfect Tunes, this debut novel comes out of the gates swinging, aiming directly for your heart with the palpitation-inducing suspense that is usually found in a thriller. Each member of the former girl group has something to say about their relationship to Cassidy and their worry about how she may have ended up dead. Just thirty pages in, at the start of Part 1 and the real meat of the book, I was wholly invested. Utilizing the other women’s voices, Yumi, Rose, and Merry, in the present as they deal with the fallout of Cassidy’s death, provides a stark contrast to Cassidy’s doe-eyed first-person account of the events of the past that led to her own star’s rise and fall. The vibe felt much like the experience I had reading My Dark Vanessa going back and forth in time.
At the end of 1999, Cassidy is fresh off of the set of Sing It, America, where she made it to the finals but placed as a runner-up when she’d expected to win it all. Instead of heading full steam into a recording contract before her eighteenth birthday, she heads home to Houston where her parents insist she make up all of her missed school assignments from the fall. Feeling especially dejected when her friends graduate without her in the spring, and have plans lined up for summer and beyond, Cassidy gets a call from her contact at Big Disc Records offering her an audition for a girl group looking for a fourth member. She jumps at the chance. At the audition, despite Rose’s intimidation, Cassidy thinks:
“We’d been in this room for less than twenty minutes and I didn’t know these girls at all, but I could sense the lingering sweetness of our harmony, like a perfume hovering in the air. I knew we could do great things.”
She’s right. It takes a lot of time, working on their first album and the press and sponsorships that go along with it, and though Rose doesn’t exactly warm up to Cassidy, still upset that her best friend, Viv, had to bow out of the group, Yumi offers up her friendship to Cassidy as Cassidy’s friends continue to move on without her.
Cassidy is living her dream, but doing so means she’s in a whole different world from that of her friends. It’s lonely on the road as they start a nationwide mall tour. In the signing line at one stop Cassidy is confronted with a strange man, Jerry, who insists that he knows Cassidy, getting quite upset when she doesn’t recognize him. It’s a mark of their fame, how far they’ve gotten already, and the dangers that go along with being in the spotlight.
“The Gloss that appeared at their single release party was not the same ragtag group of girls that congregated at Big Disc headquarters eight months ago. Before leaving the apartment I checked myself over, and reflected back at me was someone who could pass as a star.”
There's tons of money and there are endless parties and so many people idolize them all. Even so, just a year into their collaboration, cracks appear in the personas they play for their audiences, threatening to unravel their success. They’ll have to make a choice: keep playing the big shows and make millions, or stand up for themselves and their integrity and leave it all behind. Ultimately it is only Cassidy who is able to walk away, but not before she is put through the wringer.
Inserting tweets and hashtags and faux media coverage—including a transcript of an episode of VH1’s Behind the Music—Sloan expertly crafts a tangled cacophony of voices, each with something “unique” to say about Cassidy Holmes. The most interesting are obviously those of Yumi, Rose, and Merry. In the present Yumi is a divorcée and retired from Hollywood, Rose is a recovering addict with a floundering career, and Merry has a handful of successful product lines and a teenage daughter, Soleil, or Sunny, who is a social media influencer and ready to step out of her mother’s shadow and maybe break into modeling. Each of the women have different reasons to feel guilty for contributing to Cassidy’s departure from Gloss and now that she can no longer deny any claims, it was important to read carefully in order to pinpoint where their perspectives either are or aren’t corroborated by Cassidy’s own words of the past. And the best revelations are those that aren’t really much of a surprise at all.
The music and film industries are extremely cutthroat. Readers know that before they read about Cassidy. But when the pages here reveal that one of America’s most popular musical acts is under intense scrutiny by their manager and label and they’re hounded by fans and the media for mistakes big and small (Merry’s wardrobe malfunction on The Sunrise Show in NYC) and for nothing at all other than being a celebrity and a woman—and you put it into context of your own favorite musicians of your youth, maybe for you it’s also Spice Girls or Shakira or Salt-N-Pepa or Destiny’s Child, and you think about any of this extreme harassment and degradation happening to one of them, you might be left with a bad taste in your mouth. That’s what I loved, the honesty of the none-too glossy underbelly of fame. It allows you to contemplate whether the real villain of Cassidy’s story is the industry at large, the people hired to protect her well-being, the incessant paparazzi, the stigma associated with mental illness, predatory men, the pressure society puts on young women, or you, the consumer who buys into all of the above every day when you purchase or stream that artist’s music and allow the whole machine to keep up with business as usual, with no repercussions for destroying the soul of an aspiring singer.
Cassidy’s story is sad because it’s so real. Sloan wove into her interest in pop culture the question of “what if” and was able to write about mental health in a way that allowed her to grapple with her own depression (acknowledged in the “Behind the Book” section of the novel) as Cassidy became more developed. The moral is not so much that no one, not even the stars, can run from mental illness, but maybe that if we put more humanity into celebrities and belief in mental illness being another normal aspect of humanity and not something that dehumanizes a person, we can all be okay. In that way, Cassidy’s story is also empowering. Even though it took her some time after she stepped away from Gloss to fully understand what she’d been feeling, she does. Though we don’t get her own words, about how she battled within her own head, or had more good days than bad, or found the kindest psychiatrist, we can use the open-endedness of her adult years however we want. We can find hope in what wasn’t said. And after she has died, the cause of her death won’t just be part of ongoing speculation. Cassidy died by suicide and the world will know and the truth of how she passed might hurt some people and it might just save some more.
“She wanted people to know that the real Cassidy—the woman who had been such an integral part of Gloss—was not a taciturn introvert in the years following her rift with the rest of the group. It’s just, her mind fought against her. Had it been another day, if she hadn’t felt a certain despair already… if she’d heard a different song on the radio, would she have reconsidered her plan? Would she still be here now?”
The complications brought into the story by the other “Glossies” go a long way toward cementing the most potent parts of any good story, describing love and betrayal and joy and pain and persevering through all of it, developing, for the most part, into better people. I wouldn’t advise anyone enter into the commitment of reading this book without considering how the hardships within might affect you. While I was entertained as I was totally rapt by the superbly wrought observational tone of Cassidy’s voice, I wouldn’t say “read this book for entertainment” or “this is the must-have beach read,” it’s so much more complex. There are many themes that might upset an unsuspecting reader, and Sloan considered as much with a content warning before the book’s start. Please take care if mentions of suicide, depression, disordered eating, physical and sexual assault, body shaming or body dysmorphia might be a trigger for you.
Read this book if you’re looking for a piece of fiction that will make you think. Read this book for gripping prose and moderate heartbreak. If in the last 40 years you’ve ever been a fan of a famous woman—read this book. And next time as you sing and dance your way through [insert your favorite pop anthem here], consider all that goes on behind the scenes before you lay judgment on a bad outfit choice or a paparazzi snap of a drunken night and appreciate them for the musicians and the humans that they are.
The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes
By Elissa R. Sloan
448 pages. 2020.