Oh boy was this a book.
While I was reading it I kept track of many of my immediate thoughts in a large Twitter thread which you may enjoy!
I am going to spoiler the hell out of this book, so be warned. If you live in reachable distance of me I am also more than happy to spread this insane love around, please hit me up if you want to borrow it. This book has been good to me during awful times.
Goodreads is full of mean reviews for this book, as you can probably imagine, it being a YA fantasy written by a celebrity not known for writing. I wish to say first and foremost that those people are not the right audience for it. I don’t mean they aren’t fantasy-loving Young Adults (though mostly they seem not to be), I mean their senses of humour aren’t right for it. They probably wouldn’t enjoy a viewing of Troll 2 or The Room, for example. And that’s fine! We are all different! Some of us are Chameeleonés, some of us SixxSensas, some of us ThirtyNevers. Only a treasured few have it within us to be true Triple7s.
So Modelland is a kind of boarding school/fantasy/dystopian story, part Worst Witch, part Cinderella, part Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, that transcends the sum of the tropes and works that inspired it to become something entirely unpredictable.
Tookie de la Crème is a literally, almost supernaturally forgettable girl from Peppertown in Metopia (which seems to be some of the US, but also a country) who gets chosen on the global Day of Discovery to go to Modelland, a school/institution/self-governing nation? where beautiful girls go for the chance to become Intoxibellas, aka supermodels, with literal magical powers. Seven Intoxibellas graduate each year, each with one of seven powers (listed here). They’re known as 7Sevens. Rarely, one girl will have all seven powers, and she is a Triple7. The catch is that Tookie is not only uninterested in becoming an Intoxibella, but she looks utterly strange (not in a tedious YA “you don’t know you’re beautiful/that what makes you beautiful” way), and actually has no natural talent for any of it. She’s recruited with three other girls who have “quirks” that would ordinarily disqualify them from Modelland – a fat girl, Dylan, a very short girl, Shiraz (no I am not joking), and a girl with albinism from a city-state of people with albinism, Piper. And it turns out they were all recruited by a rogue Triple7 Intoxibella, Ci~L (pronounced like the French “ciel”). Someone is doing shenanigans! But who and why?
Whether we find out in a satisfactory manner or not in this book is… probably quite subjective. I am leaning towards… no.
But one thing to understand about Modelland is that it is/was intended to be a trilogy or series, so it ends with some open subplots and a sequel-bait ending. I don’t know if it’s actually been officially put to bed (Modelland came out in 2011), but eh, if we’re still waiting for GRR Martin in good faith then I don’t know why we can’t extend the same courtesy to Tyra Banks. So we don’t get Tookie’s parentage officially confirmed (which I assume we will have to at some point, unless the whole thing was just a red herring for the reveal of Ci~L’s parentage. We never find out what becomes of Hunchy the cannibal who is travelling to Modelland to eat Piper (oh yeah, the albino nation is surrounded by a “concrete jungle” filled with cannibal savages). Is he going to get to Modelland? Did he give up??? We lose sight of Tookie’s civilian best friend Lizzie and learn exactly zero of her juicy-seeming secrets. More on Lizzie and that whole mess later.
I’m going to start with the stuff I enjoyed and/or thought was good.
Firstly, the sheer bonkers imagination of this book was a pleasure. Celebrity-written fiction, especially of the YA kind, so often tends to be generic, box-ticky affairs ghostwritten by committee, itself created only to tick the box of “write a book” on the bucket list. Not so Modelland. The acknowledgements go into great detail on the amount of work Banks put into writing it (the first draft manuscript was one thousand pages long, and if you have ever seriously entertained the idea of being a writer for money, you know that one thousand pages is simply not done, dahling). Like, if you are not Tyra Banks, that gets you a sight-unseen rejection. But that’s not my point – my point is that she very clearly did the work herself. Modelland is really her personal creation, and I admire that.
Also the prose itself is often completely mental, but it’s full of character. I genuinely found myself reminded at times of Roald Dahl’s dark kid-oriented humour, especially in certain tragicomic backstories. Banks doesn’t shy away from ugliness – Tookie’s self-esteem issues ring true, there’s a lot of general madcap grossness, she happily ruins lives and murders comic relief side characters with gleeful, imaginative abandon. She isn’t precious about her characters at all. And whatever else you might say about it, I was never bored (the cardinal sin). I didn’t get the Goodreads reviewers who claimed to have needed to take a year to read it. It was never a slog to me, it was a constant kaleidoscope of batshit. I put off picking up Acclaimed Video Game Hades because I needed to know in what insane way it would end. It’s true!
Another thing I weirdly liked was that Tookie genuinely wasn’t supposed to be at Modelland! It wasn’t a case of her unconventional beauty being discovered by a higher power – she’s literally picked by the BellaDonna (supermodel Dumbledore) to replace her actual worthy sister Myrracle to spite her terrible mother. I like that this gives her the chance to really mess up the predetermined curation of the global fashion and beauty industry, and it would have been even better had Tookie ever used her brain and skills to accomplish anything at all on her own, but I suppose we can’t have everything.
Banks makes sure her cast is racially and ethnically diverse, and she does it in a matter-of-fact way that works really well. There are other kinds of diversity which aren’t handled so well, but more on those later.
There are a lot of particularly amazing details and paragraphs and plot twists I came across, but as these are chronicled in the Twitter thread linked above, I’m not going to go over them here, as tempting as it is to take a moment to go through my hoard of favourite Modelland names again and crow over them. Katoocha. Chris Creme-Crobat. Cremalatta Defacake.
The main issue with Modelland I think is that once you find out it used to be a thousand pages long, it explains a lot. Banks is trying to fit in everything, and it’s just too much. Her experience with the modelling industry and sharp eye for satire and absurdity want to be writing an entirely different book to the one her evident passion for expanding narrow beauty standards wants to write.
The result is partly a weird jigsaw puzzle world that doesn’t quite fit together. On one hand you have simplified US-friendly country names like “Cappuccina” (Italy), “Très Jolie” (France), “Didgeridoo” (Australia), Chakra (India), BayJingle (China) (though of course the US itself is split into a variety of discrete nations as we all know the US is the only country in the world with internal variation etc etc) and languages entirely composed out of vowels or totally out of guttural clicks etc that are normal child-fantasy fare if you don’t think so hard about the fact that they are sort of mapped to real-world countries and cultures. It doesn’t quite ever cross the line into distasteful, but it dances up and down it quite a lot – there are quadruplets called ILikee, MeLikee, SheLikee and HerLikee from “MiniPaul”, which is apparently something something Minneapolis/St Paul in the US, but the names sound so racist that friends and I wondered if it was meant to be Nepal.
As well as all this young-reader-friendly worldbuilding detail, though, you get the slyer jabs at the modelling industry – Modelland is run by the Bored, which is like a committee board but they look bored of everything, and if Guru Gunnero Narzz isn’t based on some real person that Tyra Banks has met and disliked, I would be very surprised. Let’s actually get more into Gunnero. The school Gurus (teachers) are all mutants of one kind or another who have been given shelter and acceptance (I guess lol) in Modelland – Guru Lauro who teaches about food is made of food, Guru Applaussez who makes clothes and seems to teach nothing has a hand for a head, Guru MattJoe who teaches rhetoric and debate looks like he’s going to flake away into dust at any second, the one who teaches facial expressions has essentially a rubber face with which to make exaggerated expressions, etc. Gunnero’s deal is… more (and I hate using this word) problematic. The only “weird” thing about him is that he is described as appearing to be – and I quote – “three-quarter man and one-quarter woman”.
His entire personality is “bitchy gay”, specifically the kind that we were taught in Big Mouth isn’t a personality, and not only is he constantly awful and deeply inappropriate to the (underage) girls, he is an objectively terrible teacher, regularly withholding information and simply not teaching things based on his egocentric whims to make him look better. He fits into yet another kind of story, a dark Dahl-esque kids’ comedy that the saccharine earnestness of the “everyone is beautiful” heart of Modelland softens too much to work.
And equally, the darker, edgier parts undermine the triumphant uplifting intentions of the “everyone is beautiful” narrative. Modelland is of course not intended to be a model of goodness (lol see what I did there) – but it’s inconsistent within itself.
(Trigger warnings for eating disorders and self-harm in the next two paragraphs.)
As I’ve said, race is not an issue in the world of Modelland, but weight and body shape certainly are. Gunnero is always making bitchy comments about weight, a character is starved as punishment for ostensibly gaining weight (it isn’t the real reason but the fact that it’s the public reason says it all). The quadruplets all have anorexia and Dylan has bulimia (which she mostly has under control but it does get triggered once in the story), and a variety of older Intoxibellas are being cyclically punished for drug use that’s hinted at being to do with weight control. The whole issue is so muddily dealt with that it’s hard to know what Banks is trying to do with it. The food Guru is all about teaching the students (Bellas) to have a healthy relationship with food, to avoid binging and fasting and eat when they’re hungry and only to the point where they’re full. She’s very kind about it, and very aware that it’s an issue that people in such an appearance-focused job are going to be pressured over, but she’s also clearly one person against the entire world, including all of Modelland’s staff and student body, and not really that good at her job? She picks up on the sisters with anorexia immediately, but her only action is to tell them she’ll help them when they ask for it, which seems to be basically nothing at all when the entire rest of their environment is telling them there isn’t a problem (and indeed, rewarding them for sustaining it). And it never comes up again. Same with Dylan – she has one relapse (after a debate about beauty standards in which she gives a great speech about the hypocrisy of focusing on perceived flaws like “asymmetrical features” while ignoring the beauty industry’s disdain of any non-thin body shape, which is also never revisited) and it’s never mentioned again. In fact, the four main girls share their personal insecurities and everything is fine again – which serves to put her bulimia on the same level as Piper’s desire to not be albino, Shiraz being an orphan and Tookie’s general self-loathing. Which… argh. It feels irresponsible.
What also feels irresponsible is how self-harm is dealt with in the book. It’s time to talk about Lizzie again! Lizzie is Tookie’s best friend from Peppertown, and she’s an orphan who lives up a tree and regularly vanishes, reappears in hospital gowns muttering cryptically to herself about being followed, and regularly picks up “sharp rocks” and cuts herself with them, while magically avoiding infection and worse. This is, understandably, distressing for Tookie, who isn’t really able to do much about it other than plead with Lizzie to not do it anymore. Later, the rogue Triple7, Ci~L, is seen (via Tookie’s plot-device sleepwalking) harming herself (later revealed to be because she feels guilty about her friends from home getting killed in the Diabolical Divide which separates Modelland from the rest of the world because they weren’t considered pretty enough to be chosen [they were, yes, too fat/short/albino]). When Ci~L’s true motives are revealed (she is conducting a kind of social experiment with the other three main girls to prove that they can make it in Modelland) and she’s cemented as an ally, Tookie repeatedly feels like she’s letting down or failing Ci~L and Lizzie whenever they self-harm, which is appallingly irresponsible to plop in a book for teens without examining it, and also the self-harm episodes sometimes feel a bit… emotionally manipulative in a not-great way.
(End of trigger warnings.)
So that was all pretty heavy, sorry.
On to lighter topics, Banks strays into the Traditional YA Love Triangle trope, in which the protagonist has a crush on someone in her old life and then meets a new, more interesting love interest in her new life, and we all have to pretend that they’re equally weighted as possibilities, even though Tookie has never spoken a word to Theophilus Lovelaces from school, who has a girlfriend anyway. At the end, to be fair, she finally lets him go (to his unenviable fate of being with evil Zarpessa, who is simultaneously a dog-eat-dog social climber of diamond-hard ambition and believes women should submit to their husbands because men are superior). There’s also this intensely weird moment where Tookie and Bravo (the exciting hot architect male model love interest) are together and Bravo tries to wipe something off her face and she ends up sucking his thumb and it is all just too much and I cannot think about it too much for fear of what I will unearth.
There are a lot of silly inconsistencies which are all for the sake of dramatic lines and plot twists later (Tookie doesn’t pay the Day of Discovery a second thought until her evil mother makes a snarky comment to her and then suddenly it’s revealed that it’s all she ever wanted, etc) and Banks undermines her girl power message by falling back over and over again on inherited titles, including solving the entire book by making the BellaDonna a monarchy (which I swear it wasn’t for 90% of the book because Gunnero is so transparently gunning for the title and it’s implied that the Bored is powered by politics behind the scenes) and a character the secret heiress to the title, crowning her with, I am not joking, a crystal guillotine. So much for everyone having the power inside them, eh?
Another problem I had was that there was so much batshittery going on that I kept missing things. I spent so much energy trying to get my head around the plot that I’d end up missing the bizarre turns of phrase with which Banks peppered her prose. It wasn’t so much missing the wood for the trees as forgetting I was in a forest at all.
Basically, Modelland is a rollercoaster ride and a half, where everything smells of blood oranges, nobody learns any magic at all, and everyone passionately hates actresses for no reason. There’s infinitely more to it than I could ever write down here, and all of it is mental.