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Virgin in the city: Mormon storyteller tells more

Published October 17, 2009 5:55 pm

Elna Baker's first book is a gutsy one, as she tackles cultural prejudice while exploding preconceptions.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Elna Baker is a gutsy writer. In her first book, The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance, she writes frankly about desire and sex -- make that modern life --- in a way that practicing Mormons rarely do.

If that title makes you laugh, maybe you've attended just such a dance. Or, just as interesting in terms of the writer's ambition in crossing the world's religious cultural divide, maybe you haven't.

Baker's coming-of-age Dance , a series of essays featuring a very funny, sassy narrator, is remarkable because of what it isn't: It isn't a faith-promoting mission testimony or a former Mormon's screed.

Instead, Baker, a 20-something practicing Mormon and comic who lives in Manhattan, has accomplished something that just might break open the world of religious storytelling: She tells the truth in a brave, frank and overly confessional way. "While I say no to certain things (sex, drugs, alcohol), I try to say yes to everything else," she writes boldly, in a statement of personal philosophy that becomes difficult to hold onto after she falls in love with an atheist.

She's writing, not to Mormons or non-Mormons, but to anyone who has felt the pain of being overlooked by the opposite sex or even by God. In some places, Baker plays as a younger, LDS version of Anne Lamott, the unlikely Christian of Traveling Mercies . "I downplay my faith in mixed company because I know most New Yorkers think of religious people as whack jobs."

Baker, raised in Spain and London before attending New York University, is as dismissive in her cultural stereotypes of Utah as she is of New Yorkers who assume she's Republican and the product of a polygamous family just because she's a Mormon. She's never been kissed and feels overlooked by men until she, in a miracle of diet and drugs she attributes to God, loses 80 pounds.

Her boy-craziness gains gravitas and universality when she writes about finding (or not finding) a home in her body, as being large never allowed her to believe her religion's mantra of the importance of her body as a physical temple.

Once thin, she sheaths 80 pounds' worth of stretched-out skin in a girdle, which allows her to play catchup, to pass as someone more worldly and experienced. She draws girly maps of where she has kissed boys throughout Manhattan, and an annual chart of "What I Believe" and "What I Used to Believe."

All her pop-cultural knowingness doesn't shield the narrator from the pain of her duality, that sense of being an alien both at church and in negotiating the streets of New York. Baker's frank self-appraisal is her strength, which helps her shatter stained-glass windows of religious sentimentality.

That girlfriend confessional style mostly serves her beautifully, and you can imagine how well the story would sound spun out in episodes onstage. As a book, these essays needed a tighter edit, and the narrator's churlishness becomes grating at times. Particularly in the later half of the book, where Baker doesn't deeply investigate her complicated relationship with her self-image, the writer's lack of more varied storytelling tools begins to wear.

Overall, Baker's voice is so fresh and funny she deserves a large audience. For Utah readers, some LDS singles might find the book too raw, as Baker is definitely a member of the oversharing crowd. And the book won't be a potential Relief Society book-club selection, as the narrator is simply too irreverent for any official correlation-committee activity, which Baker signals in the acknowledgment to her parents. "This book ... aside from the 11 F-words, nine Sh-words, five-A-holes, page 107 and the entire Warren Beatty chapter ... is dedicated to you," before she asks them to avoid reading chapters 21, 22 and 23.

The Virgin in the City spin may have helped Baker garner a national book deal. But what makes her story more of a revelation is that by facing her doubts and hypocrisy, Baker is able to find new ways to explore her own maturing faith.