Friday, April 15, 2011

In Which Trai Reviews 'Growing Pains'

Again, as ever this year, my sincerest apologies for the lack of reviews lately. My time has been yet again monopolized by school, and things will slow down just a few weeks from now, so I'll hopefully be able to pick up my slack during the summer.

The Book: Growing Pains

The Author: Billie Piper

How I Found It: I'm now desperately in love with Doctor Who, and I loved Billie Piper's role on the show, Rose Tyler, and her acting in general.

The Review: Only my love for Billie Piper could have tempted me to read this. I don't normally go for nonfiction, but when I looked up Billie on Wikipedia, I was struck by how interesting and inspiring her early life sounded. She was only 23 when she released this book sometime in 2006 or so, and it sounds absurd--a 23-year-old having enough life experience to fill a book? But she had enough and more, and I was surprised at how much depth and relevance her story still has five or so years later.

At 15 years old, Billie was signed to Innocent Records, pushed to be an artist with the longevity of Madonna and the success of the Spice Girls. It was a pretty tall order for a 15-year-old, and you can't help but wonder what her team was thinking. Billie was more than game, looking forward to fame and money and with an endlessly positive attitude, but upon recording her first single, she started to feel like it wasn't what she wanted. She could sing, but not quite well enough to be a true performer, but she pushed on and decided to stay in the business for the sake of the people making their living off of her.

Billie had already been growing up far too young--she was an only child for the first seven years of her life, but then her mother had three children in three years, which lead to a nervous breakdown for Billie's mother and the responsibility of parenting her siblings for Billie. After loving acting classes as a child, Billie made it into the Sylvia Young Theatre School, and from there her singing career kicked off.

The pressures of her singing career and personal life ended up putting Billie into a destructive spiral. A television presenter's comment about her being fat sparked a two year battle with anorexia and laxative abuse, which led to many painful health problems. Her manager warned her not to date a member of a boy band, saying that it would make her core audience (young girls who would fantasize about dating that same boy band member) hate her. They dated anyway, and it quickly led to Billie receiving hate mail and being poorly received at her concerts.

All of that would change when she got married, at 18, to Chris Evans, a DJ and television host sixteen years her senior who literally saved her life. Billie left the music world in order to be a wife and, eventually, an actress, something she's kept doing ever since.

Just reading what I saw of her life story on Wikipedia had already endeared me to Billie, and I knew I'd probably really like the book, but I didn't expect to love her even more and find the book truly life-affirming. This one is a keeper and something I will be re-reading and recommending to friends of mine.

For one thing, I was stunned at how incredibly honest and candid Billie was about her struggles and mistakes. She is fully willing to talk about her struggles with anorexia and even an attempt at suicide, and admits freely that the way she treated her friends and family oftentimes was wrong. She was humble and totally honest about her shortcomings and feelings during what must have been incredibly turbulent times, and I was stunned at how much she'd had to go through.

What touched me the most were the details of her struggle with anorexia. Several people I knew in high school have struggled with eating disorders, and while I knew bits and pieces of what it was like for them, I'd never really read a true firsthand account until now. No detail is spared, and it's wrenching to read but painfully true. Billie doesn't divulge every detail, in order not to give anyone ideas, but she urges those who are struggling to get help, and the fact that she was able to recover from her eating disorder is ultimately hopeful. I certainly felt a little better about myself after reading it--she had the same insecurities about herself that I'd had when I was a bit younger, and it really made me realize that she's just a person, too.

The insight into the music industry was also interesting in a really twisted way. I liked that what Billie went through seems to have soured her team on putting another artist that young up to the rigors of the industry. It's truly sad how much she had to deal with on her own: "It had been eight months of non-stop work, I'd barely been home, I was tired, I'd split up with my boyfriend in Swindon and I'd had to deal with my first period with no one to confide in" (34). She was living in a hotel room on her own at 15, and I'm sure that this type of thing is still going on with the young Disney performers and such today. It was the lack of supervision that did her the most harm, something she admits. I'd never considered how quickly backlash could happen, either. Her manager's bit about not dating a boy band member and all the hate she received was really an eye-opener, considering the behavior of some of the tweenybopper fans that are around today.

Overall, I was truly surprised at how much I ended up loving this book. Billie went through a lot, but she managed to emerge from it a funny, kind, self-aware person who has a lot of love for the people she's worked for and a lot of advice to give. My favorite bit: "Then I thought, ‘You’ve got to sharpen up, girl, sort it out. Be more headstrong and believe in yourself more. Because if you don’t, why should anyone else?'" (286-7).

The story was emotional (I was crying when she recounted her almost attempt at suicide, and when she finally found happiness again on the set of Doctor Who) and I think that Doctor Who fans would enjoy it in particular, because it gives a ton of insight on what she has in common with Rose and why she was chosen for the role, which made me appreciate her work on the show all the more. It's a story of hope and figuring out what you love to do, and for that reason I'd recommend it to almost anyone, but in particular those who are struggling or have struggled with eating disorders, any young person thinking about going into a music career (there's some salty language and a bit of content, so perhaps no one younger than 15 or 16), or someone who loves Billie's work as an actress. This one's a keeper.

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