Madonna’s kids’ book lands with a thud

Million copies of overblown, empty story

The English Roses
By Madonna, illustrated by Jeffrey Fulvimari
CALLAWAY; 46 Pages; $19.95

Slipcased, with a first printing north of 1 million copies, simultaneously released in 30 languages and 100 countries, pop singer Madonna’s first of a projected five children’s books landed in about 50,000 bookstores nationwide Monday. The last time a five-book series launched with such a bang, the first installment was called “Genesis.”

Unlike the Pentateuch, the five books of Madonna begin with a 46-page kids’ book titled “The English Roses.” Read attentively, it yields an extremely personal, almost confessional glimpse into the author’s raw feelings. Unfortunately, those feelings bespeak a persecution complex so narcissistic that she ought rather have paid readers $100 an hour than charged them 50 cents a page.

It’s difficult to summarize “The English Roses” without exceeding it in length. Madonna begins matters with a somewhat needy rhetorical question, “Have you ever heard of the English Roses?”, as if perhaps checking up on her publicity team. Will heads roll if we haven’t?

Not to worry. She’ll tell us precisely who the English Roses are, just as soon as she gets through telling us what they’re not, i.e., “A box of chocolates. A football team. Flowers growing in the garden.”

If the first page seems a tad early to be padding one’s maiden book with straw men, relax. This is actually Page 6, the first five having consisted of a title page, dedication to the author’s children and other front matter. All are illustrated with undue charm by “artist and model” Jeffrey Fulvimari in a witty, busy style that recalls the celebrated filigree of Ronald Searle, and the almond-eyed womanhood of the “I Dream of Jeannie” credit sequence.

The English Roses, it turns out, are four alarmingly skinny pretty girls named Nicole, Amy, Charlotte and Grace. Don’t bother trying to keep them straight, though, as Madonna herself makes no effort to. She appears to award them their lines solely on the basis of who hasn’t had one in a while.

The four interchangeable Roses exist primarily to torment a sweet, angelic Madonna stand-in named Binah, and then to repent of their jealous misbehavior. Madonna introduces Binah as “very, very beautiful,” with “long, silky hair and skin like milk and honey.” She doesn’t specify a color for Binah’s long silky hair, but illustrator Fulvimari isn’t fooled, and neither are we: He makes her blond as platinum.

Binah has it rough. Even though she’s “always kind to people,” “she was sad. ” “Even though she was the most beautiful girl anyone had ever seen” — again with the beautiful? — “she was also very lonely.” And despite hearing from all sides “What a beauty she is! She shines like a star! That Binah is something else!”, Binah “had no friends, and everywhere she went, she was alone.”

Sound like all the kind, beautiful girls you know? Nothing like kindness, silky hair and milky skin to drive any prospective playmates screaming from the schoolyard.

Binah’s inexplicable ostracism is exactly the kind of storytelling gaffe an inexperienced writer runs into when patching together an alter ego out of different, not altogether compatible phases in that writer’s life. Nobody doubts that Madonna has probably been, at various times in her life, beautiful, kind, admired, hated and alone. But to be all at once strains credulity. It suggests that Binah — though the name signifies “understanding” in Madonna’s beloved Kabbalah — is misunderstood not just by the prickly English Roses, but by her creator.

After trying to establish how Binah can be both alone and resented for getting “toooooooo much attention,” the story goes about where one might expect. A lazily never-named fairy godmother visits the English Roses and offers them a chance to change places with poor, kind, beautiful Binah.

Spying on her beforehand, they discover that Binah — in between being “an excellent student and very good at sports” — is stuck doing chores all day for her widowed father, much as the young Madonna supposedly did. The moral, according to the not-very-British-sounding fairy godmother, is that “in the future, you might think twice before grumbling that someone else has a better life than you.”

In other words, Madonna’s just a poor little rich girl, and the rest of us only pick on her because we’re jealous. There may be something to that. But it doesn’t make her first book for children (“even grown-up ones,” she suggests on the jacket — ever the crossover artist) any less meretricious, cynical or unimaginative. Don’t hate her because she’s beautiful, the story transparently pleads. OK, we won’t. But so long as she can’t write her way out of a paper slipcase, we sure can’t respect her very much.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
San Francisco Chronicle, USA
Sep. 16, 2003 Book Review
David Kipen, Chronicle Book Critic
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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday September 16, 2003.
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