With “The Book of Essie,” author Meghan Maclean Weir has written her first novel, a debut about fame, religion, families and cults. Those who remember the massacre at Waco involving the Branch Davidians, and readers who are fans of reality television involving large religious families, will recognize a connection between the characters and events in this book; however, it is not in any way based on fact.
A hastily arranged marriage between two high school seniors and the frantic planning of the event set the stage, introducing us to a family that’s been on television throughout the lives of the parents’ five children.
A preacher and his wife, major stars of the reality show, have created an empire of wealth and influence by allowing cameras into their home, rectory and church. The family is a worldwide sensation. The mother has been primarily in charge of arranging carefully crafted scenes to ensure that the family show maintains its high television ratings. She also creates scenarios so that each child and other characters on the program maintain a strong “likeability” factor. (This type of rating is achieved by focus groups.)
Viewers do not see the lavish homes and property owned by the family in other places of the world. But viewers are privy to intimate details of miscarriages, births, deaths and weddings. Nothing is off-limits. One of the sons seems destined to rise politically, and his role in the series is crafted with painstaking detail.
A reporter, Liberty “Libbie” Bell, whose own twin sister died in a raid on a cult by the federal government, is tapped to film the wedding and given exclusive rights to interview the young engaged couple, Essie and Roarke.
Essie is handling this arrangement, and her mother only agrees to it because of the sad secret Essie is hiding from the public. Essie is a threat to the empire. She feels a unique bond between herself and Libby because Libby has been faced with crucial decision-making regarding truth or deception and has been the subject of national and international interest.
Essie’s moral dilemma on whether to reveal her secret forms the crux of the novel. Libby knows first hand the struggle between keeping bad things secret and revealing the truth. She knows how either choice will change Essie’s life and that of her family. Revealing the secret will result in the destruction of the family and its 30-year-old realm in reality television.
The behind-the-scenes glimpses into the filming of a (fictional) reality show, the hypocrisy displayed by some of the characters in the book, the glamour of star power, and the influence of the media make this book undeniably interesting.