Lilian Quick is forty years old and struggling. Her ability to see animal auras and incorporate them into pet portraits does not pay well and she can barely scrape up the rent on her Toronto sublet. Most of her life is lived digitally, and she is constantly taking selfies and deleting then because she doesn’t like the way she looks. Every matcha latte is Instagrammmed, and Yumi, with whom she shares a studio (for a small fee) is about the only person she sees.
But Lilian has had closeness in her life; her cousin Florence whom she adores. Their mothers are sisters and for much of her childhood Lilian went from Canada to America to spend school holidays with her cousin. She never seems to have recovered from seeing Florence as more dazzling, more adventurous, more everything than herself.
How exciting then to discover that Florence is now Eleven Novak, the self-empowerment guru for women who runs the Ascendency Program. And then Eleven visits Toronto and the cousins reconnect, and a wonderful offer is made to Lilian.
Selecky has great fun with the typical gushing tone of the promotional material that Lilian receives from her various gurus, including Eleven. Here is Eleven describing some cakes that are distributed at a meeting for prospective Ascendants
This Bakery is owned by an Ascendency grad named Winnie Prudhomme. Winnie stores her special gluten-free flour blend in a sacred room, where it is infused with positive intentions of meditating monks. She bakes the cupcakes to the sounds of daily prayer chants from a Tibetan monastery. These cupcakes are no ordinary treat. They’re dairy free, naturally sweetened without sugar, and made with pure, unprocessed oils. When you eat them you restore peaceful energy.
Eleven employs staff to run her program but she is the adored front person. The message she is selling is that if a woman knows what she really wants and follows her heart, the Universe will reward her with money and happiness. Her program shows women how to do this, and also rewards Eleven…each ascendant pays around $10,000 to take part.
Lilian has another guru, Jonathan Rasmussen, an online yoga teacher, and he is incorporated into Eleven’s program. He and Lilian have an encounter which leads to Lilian taking action for possibly the first time in her life. It brings Lilian more success than she ever thought possible, but…. With Lilian nothing is ever clear-cut. She doubts every action. She shows us the relentless monetising of every aspect of the Ascendency Program, buy these chocolates, buy these holy necklaces, but finds she has profited from it a great deal herself.
Although she can never bring herself to criticise her beloved cousin, she has doubts. And in Hawaii she comes to realise another path entirely is hers. For now she is not just seeing animal auras, but the auras of everyone and everything.
Margaret Atwood and Karen Joy Fowler praise this book, so who am I to differ? Selecky certainly provides an amusing insight into the jargon and workings of the influencers of the self-empowerment world and the money to be made there. However, there is no overt criticism of the ethics of all this. We see everything through Lilian’s eyes, and she is such a confused and self-deprecating protagonist, always doubting herself, criticising her own appearance and behaviour, and allowing herself to be treated badly by her so called friends, Juliette and Fleurje, that she is never capable of freeing herself from Eleven’s spell. And did she reach some kind of enlightenment through the program, or completely lose her marbles?
I float up through my own light, the rosy bubble lifting me up to the green skin of the pavilion, and then the pavilion is gone….Lighthouse, lighthouse, lighthouse, lighthouse.