Review: After 'Living Oprah,' Robyn Okrant has a fairy-tale ending

Let's start with the obvious: As cute as it may be to suggest, Living Oprah will never be an Oprah's Book Club selection.

It doesn't have an overt, heartwarming, multicultural social message, like too high a number of the novels the talk show host anoints.

It is from the unfavored genre of nonfiction, although you sometimes have to remind yourself of this. Chicago author Robyn Okrant spends a year following every single dollop of life advice Winfrey spoons out, on the show, in the magazine and on the Web site. There is so much of it, and it is so specific, that it stretches credulity almost past its border with farce.

Beyond touting the likes of Celine Dion and perfect white shirts, Oprah, it turns out, would like people to monitor the shape of their bowel movements.

And the third thing arguing against Living Oprah making the Book Club? The book is not blindly sycophantic toward Oprah. If there's one thing we have learned about Winfrey over the years, it is that she dishes advice much better than she takes it.

It seems the most perfect book-pitch idea in the world — even with Winfrey having since announced that she'll end her talk show in 2011. But Okrant, a personable yoga instructor, writer, actor and performance artist, insisted in an interview during the 2008 project that she did not set out to secure space on the shelves of Borders.

What she wanted to do, she said, was comment on commercialism and self-reliance, on media and its impact on women, and maybe learn something about herself in the process. What she discovered, she chronicled in her still-extant blog, LivingOprah.com. She kept copious notes, too, as well as logs of time and money spent trying to, as Winfrey puts it, Live Your Best Life.

Because Winfrey is one of the most famous and closely watched people on the planet, the blog began to gain traction. The concept resonated instantly, and people attracted by the high-concept idea found that it was being executed with grace, wit and intelligence. Although Okrant kept her identity hidden, by the middle of the year, she began to accumulate press to go along with blog readers.

In July, NPR wanted her for All Things Considered, and she was given a stark, last-minute choice: Reveal her real name or there would be no interview with the afternoon news show, one of her favorite enterprises in all of media. She agonized, even asking herself "What would Oprah do?" she writes. She did the interview.

Now she's on the other end of the media power game. I didn't talk to her for this piece because — here's some insight into how publicity works — the book's press representative made a deal to give the first interview to USA Today. If the Chicago Tribune wanted to talk to her, it would have to agree to run its piece after the other paper did.

But having Okrant's thoughts appearing first outside thousands of hotel rooms in no way diminishes the charm and achievement of the book. It reads like an adventure in modern media, melding this massive celebrity and her sometimes reluctant follower, new media and old, gender studies and basic TV programming, makeup tips and book purchasing advice.

As the blog would lead you to expect, the life stunt that might have been played for laughs or with a nose in the air becomes the occasion for cultural and personal analysis.

"There's a part of me — a very surprised part — that doesn't want this to end," Okrant writes in the "October" chapter. "I have warmed to the day-to-day ritual of giving my power over to Oprah. In many ways, I live risk free."

Still, though, she finds "exasperation" creeping in, as she senses that Winfrey's nonstop barrage of advice is unrealistic and, perhaps, not entirely healthy for follower or leader: "It might not be the case of the blind leading the blind, but it's certainly the stressed leading the stressed," she writes.

While the book can veer toward New Age-speak at times, Okrant is too essentially grounded to get lost in the ether. Some of the individual jokes work a little too hard for a payoff, too, but the effect is muted by the overall good humor and the sense that you are in the hands of someone whose head is on squarely.

In the end, when it's January 2009 and her project is over, Okrant writes admiringly of Winfrey the person, her obvious drive and success still giving way to "struggles to find balance and self-acceptance, just like the rest of us."

But the bigger conclusion boils down to this: "The very idea of attaining our Best Lives is a fairy tale that keeps us from being satisfied with our Real Lives."

And you come away thinking what a shame it is that this book will not get the Book Club treatment. It stands on its own, to be sure, but given the funhouse-mirror levels of self-reflection, that episode might well have been the best Oprah ever, a way the top daytime talk show might have challenged itself to live its own Best Life.

Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Walk the Walk of the Queen of Talk

By Robyn Okrant, Center Street, 272 pages, $24.99

Review: After 'Living Oprah,' Robyn Okrant has a fairy-tale ending 01/23/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 23, 2010 3:30am]

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