Book review: ‘The Tao of Martha’ by Jen Lancaster

There’s a trend in non-fiction these days: the stunt memoir. Or, as I like to call it, the gimmicky memoir.

You’ve heard of some, I’m sure. Maybe you’ve read a few. But for the unfamiliar, the stunt memoir’s premise is that, for a certain amount of time, the author will embark on a personal challenge and then write about it — often in the spirit of self-discovery or improvement. Maybe it’s not looking at herself in a mirror for a year. Or trying to follow the Bible to the letter. Or following the advice of a women’s how-to guide from the 1960s.

And you know what? Sometimes it works. Sometimes it’s enlightening and interesting and compelling. And sometimes . . . it’s a stretch. It feels contrived. There’s nothing interesting or fresh. Friends, it’s with great sadness that I place the awesome Jen Lancaster’s latest work, The Tao of Martha, into the latter category.

This pains me — it really does. But this book didn’t work for me. I waited for it to get funny or to illuminate something or to shimmer with the wit that has made Lancaster a bookish superstar, but it just never got there. And with only 50 pages to go, I resorted to skimming. Skimming. Skimming in a Lancaster book. That’s just . . . sacrilege.

The Tao of MarthaYou’ve probably gleaned Lancaster’s “stunt” from the title but, if not, here goes:

“Jen’s still a little rough around the edges. Suffice it to say, she’s no Martha Stewart. And that is exactly why Jen is going to Martha up and live her life according to the advice of America’s overachieving older sister — the woman who turns lemons into lavender-infused lemonade.

By immersing herself in Martha’s media empire, Jen will embark on a yearlong quest to take herself, her house, her husband (and maybe even her pets) to the next level — from closet organization to craft making, from party planning to kitchen prep.

Maybe Jen can go four days without giving herself food poisoning if she follows Martha’s dictates on proper storage. Maybe she can grow closer to her girlfriends by taking up their boring-ass hobbies like knitting and sewing. Maybe she can finally rid her workout clothes of meatball stains by using Martha’s laundry tips. Maybe she can create a more meaningful anniversary celebration than just getting drunk in the pool with her husband . . . again. And maybe, just maybe, she’ll discover that the key to happiness does, in fact, lie in Martha’s perfectly arranged cupboards and artfully displayed charcuterie platters.

Or maybe not.” (Goodreads)

So, okay: this book wasn’t bad. Despite my tone, a Jen Lancaster memoir is still often better than a non-Jen Lancaster memoir. Her battles in her garden, attempts to sculpt a magnificent trick-or-treating experience for neighborhood kids, poignant stories of losing a beloved dog? All well-told, and worth the price of admission. (And my three-star rating.) There were moments when The Tao of Martha offered up the Jen we all know and love and I thought, Yes! Here she is. Let’s do this.

But then . . . things just got boring.

The story felt forced. I don’t know how else to explain it. Jen is obviously not Martha Stewart and, haha, none of us are because she’s Martha and she’s perfect and blah blah, we’ve been here before. Haven’t we? It felt like a joke that had gone stale: everyone knows Martha is the shining beacon of all mere mortals can never accomplish. No one can be as lovely, perfect, nonplussed. So I guess I was waiting for . . . something more? Jen does experience some growth and actually finds she enjoys some of hobbies she adopts, but it wasn’t enough.

I just never felt invested in her journey, plain and simple.

If you’re new to Jen Lancaster, you can’t go wrong with Bitter Is the New Black. It remains one of the funniest and most heartfelt stories I’ve read, and follow-ups like Bright Lights, Big Ass and Such A Pretty Fat were also stellar. So while The Tao of Martha didn’t wow me, I can unabashedly recommend her works to anyone new to her humor. And I’ll still be eager to get my paws on whatever she whips up next.

3 out of 5!

ISBN: 0452298059 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by Amazon Vine in exchange for my honest review

13 thoughts on “Book review: ‘The Tao of Martha’ by Jen Lancaster

  1. I’m listening to “Here I Go Again” which the first book of hers that I’ve read, and I’ve been laughing my ass off. This is so my decade. But I have mixed experiences with the gimmick memoir. I tend to enjoy them for about half the book then I get bored. Good to know that if I go on a Jen Lancaster kick, I will skip this one.


    • I agree, Sandy — I’ll jump into a gimmicky memoir and think, “Oh, this is so much fun! Yay! Let’s learn stuff!” and then it just . . . gets dull. A bummer.


    • Definitely try Bitter, Kathy — it’s fabulous. Jen feels just like that outspoken, hilarious friend in your group, and that’s what makes her so much fun!


  2. I haven’t read this one yet…but did just recently finish Here I Go Again, and that cracked me up, as her others have too. She is going to be at the Bethesda Barnes and Noble next week…are you going?


    • I need to read Here I Go Again — I’ve never read any of her fiction, actually! I wish I could get to the Bethesda event — sigh. Have fun for the both of us!


    • Anytime, Andi. 🙂 Bitter is an excellent starting point, though her memoirs could probably be read independently. I tend to think it’s more fun when you have all the back story, though!


  3. Bummer. It sounds so cute and the title and cover are pretty presh. Thanks for your honesty though doll.


    • Ooh, I love the cover, too! Totally judge books by their covers — what can I say. It’s even more adorable in person . . . you can really spot the details and care they took into crafting such a hilarious scene.


  4. Love your review. I came late to the Jen party and loved Bitter Is the New Black so much that I read them all back-to-back-to-back. And that was a mistake. I think it’s easier to be a Jen Head if you put space between the books. Otherwise it’s soooo obvious that Bitter is by far the best and you realize she’s gone downhill. Which is sad. (Though I think I’m one of the few readers who still has a real soft spot for Pretty in Plaid.)


  5. After reading Such a Pretty Fat I can say that I’m a Lancaster fan. I’m not however a big Martha Steward fan so I can see where this one might go wrong. It is a bit of a bummer to see a little bit of a flop on her stunning record but I think I can keep her in my good graces since she has written so many other gems (some of which I still have yet to read!).


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