I watch Tyra Banks’ “American’s Next Top Model” religiously, usually while eating dessert. The experience is a pleasant one: it’s not mentally taxing, it’s amusing, it occasionally strains credibility, and it gives me the opportunity to haughtily pass judgment over tightly edited versions of people I’ve never met. Modelland provided a similar experience, with the added element of surprise. I was expecting something along the lines of a wackier Devil Wears Prada; what I got was just about a so-so young adult-level dystopian science fiction novel. Only wackier.
Even typing this makes me feel ridiculous, but the main character is Tookie De La Crème (and every time I read her full name, I thought longingly of Oreos), a self-described “Forgetta-Girl,” who lies on the floor of her high school in the town of Metopia, hoping someone will notice her enough to even step on her. In the future Tyra Banks imagines, we will worship models, and our entire society will be centered around following the fashions Modelland dictates, and trying to get ourselves or our daughters selected to be a Modelland trainee, or “Bella,” on the annual Day of Discovery. It’s like fashion Hogwarts. Or, you know… not. Modelland is ruled over by a mysterious entity known as the Belladonna, whose minions, the Triple7 models, have literal superpowers of beauty and salesmanship. Tookie’s beautiful younger sister, Myrracle, has been groomed by her parents to be chosen on this year’s Day of Discovery, but somehow, Tookie, with her frizzy hair, mismatched eyes, and huge forehead, is chosen instead. During her time in Modelland, she will face the challenges of supermodel classes, a personal nemesis, a possible love interest, the insecurities that come from having zero family support, and a mystery. It seems Modelland is trying to hide something.
The scout who selects Tookie (and three other similarly unlikely candidates) is the famous Ci-L, who was once the greatest model on earth, but is now being punished for unnamed crimes. Judging by the way Tyra Banks presents herself on television, Tookie and Ci-L both represent aspects of Ms. Banks herself at different stages of development. Tookie is the awkward, insecure side, and Ci-L represents the woman who has conquered the world of fashion, and now seems to want to nurture new talent. But in the book, at least, there are more sides than this to Ci-L, and she becomes more menacing as the story progresses.
Banks’ sense of pacing is mostly rather good, with a few misfires in the form of side plots that are ill-developed and eventually abandoned altogether. The plot itself is of course ridiculous, but that’s not at all to say it’s devoid of entertainment value. Though the classes in the model academy are mostly dull, and many of the peripheral characters fail to draw interest despite their oddities, Tookie herself is actually a pretty sympathetic character, and her arc is well-described: organic and believable. The book also present a few mysteries that I was surprisingly curious to see the resolutions to, though in this area the story does disappoint in some respects, since a few of the questions presented by the book are never really answered.
To someone like me, who will read just about anything, the book was okay. It was moderately discomfiting in the way it’s discomfiting to read the work of a good friend who, while clearly intelligent and imaginative, is simply not a writer. Modelland didn’t blow me away, but it impressed me if only because I had little to no expectations for it to begin with.