Frisky Reads: Read Bottom Up Is All of Us And It’s Great

My Gchat history is a wasteland of eight plus years of frantic missives sent to friends — often copy/pasted for maximum broadcast efficiency — dissecting the date I had last night (or if we’re calling a spade a spade, the drunken flirtation and half-handy I gave last night) and how to best fake casual disaffectedness in hopes of flipping the experience into a real relationship as quickly as possible. The post-game Gchat highlights have become so ubiquitous in my life that my best friend recently pointed out that a conversation we were currently having about a guy I was dating was identical, down to the typed speech affects, to one we had seven years ago in college, about that same guy. And while it is devastatingly apparent to any of you who read this site regularly that I possess exactly negative three ounces of chill, I know that in this regard — the over-analysis aided and abetted by modern communication — I’m not alone.

And that’s why Read Bottom Up, a new book co-written by Skye Chatham and Neel Shah, is so resonant and hilarious. The rom-com novel follows the modern day courtship of Madeline and Elliot, two twenty-somethings who seem to never worry about how expensive Russ & Daughters is in New York for a morning bagel, as told by their emails and texts to each other, and to their friends. It’s a tricky little device, but one that works, because how many of us have forwarded an email chain to our friends, with the admonition “Read from the bottom and scroll up”? It’s not just a novel that uses a cute hook to get one over the readers and dispense of narrative structure, it’s a pretty accurate time capsule of the books that could be crafted out of any of our email and text message inboxes.

Chatham and Shah (no familial relation, Shahs are the Smiths of western India) are clever writers and a large reason “Read Bottom Up” works is voice. Elliot and Madeline’s story is nothing particularly special – if anything, their neuroses are so uncomfortably familiar that your stomach will more likely twist from seeing your own dating missteps in print, before it twists from an unexpected plot turn. But writing a book that’s entirely dialogue, that takes characters who have real voice, and Shah and Chatham nail it on their first co-writing effort. Madeline and Elliot are effortlessly likable, something necessary if you’re about to dig through five and a half months of their electronic communiqués. Their best friends and respective sounding boards David and Emily maintain the healthy combo of optimism and skepticism I’ve come to value in the friends I spam with my own Gchat-fielded anxieties. The device of using e-mail and texts alone to craft a narrative hinges entirely upon the likability of the foursome, even when certain aspects veer into trope category – the acerbic best friends start to flirt, because of course they do! —  and in Read Bottom Up, that group of upwardly-mobile New Yorkers doing overly typical New York things is somehow not as grating as one might think, even with the rampant overuse of lower Manhattan bars that aren’t quite as cool as the authors think they are (seriously, no one is going to Lupa anymore, not even Gwyneth Paltrow).

Let’s get this out of the way: Read Bottom Up is indeed chick-lit. But it’s chick lit at its absolute finest, reminiscent of the golden post-Candace Bushnell days, when Emily Giffin’s Something Borrowed series wasn’t just a bad Kate Hudson movie, and Meg Cabot had grown up from The Princess Diaries. It’s a lot like Meg Cabot’s best work in that way — her Boy series of the early aughts (Boy Meets Girl, The Boy Next Door, and Every Boy’s Got One) utilized the same combo of emails and instant messaging to craft the story arc, and given the easily-saccharine nature of rom-com lit, it’s always been a good way to keep the prose light and snappy. The fact that other books haven’t done this well in the near-decade since Cabot moved on from the Boy series is a source of much chagrin. That Chatham and Shah can revive the subgenre, and make it wholly relevant to the way we communicate now is aces.

And that’s what this book really is — a funny and fresh look at how we communicate and how we date now. I’ll be the first to admit that technology has been my greatest paralytic. The instant feedback loop is both intoxicating and wholly gratifying. Is a date even a real date if you don’t screenshot your text banter and send it to your five closest girl friends and one male friend to use as a control? It’s also my biggest source of personal anxiety, that I’ve somehow morphed into the only person in the outer boroughs who can’t craft a witty two-line email to reignite a casual genital-mashing spark without running it through multiple rounds of edits by jury.

I still stand by the fact, even after reading the book, that guys don’t communicate this way — that no guy is as thoughtful or neurotic as any of my women friends, otherwise we wouldn’t all be quite so single and barren and broken by man-children. I have pushed press copies of the novel into hands of different male friends who assure me that they actually do speak like this (perhaps with fewer complete sentences, but hey, this is still a literary work), and would I please stop calling them liars, since our own email and Gchat records prove otherwise. But even if its not completely believable, it’s not out of the realm of possibility, and I know I sure would like to subscribe to the notion that the reason my latest date hasn’t called me back is because he’s paralyzed with anxiety over how to reach out to me, and not my actual suspicion, which is that he ran into me at the grocery store while I was purchasing bargain deli meat and non-latex prophylactics.

Read Bottom Up is great because it’s all of us — and if I can’t be ten toes to Jesus with the fuck buddy turned relationship of my dreams, at least I’m not alone in writing lengthy email soliloquies about his great smile and impressive book collection.

Read Bottom Up comes out today, April 7th, from Harper Collins.