Not About Madonna

  • Whit Hill
  • Heliotrope Books LLC
  • 282 pp.
  • September 30, 2011

A onetime friend of the pop star struggles to find her own footing outside the limelight.

Reviewed by Esther Dwinell

Although not obsessed with Madonna, I am a fan of her music and no stranger to the headlines surrounding her. I am aware of the dance moves, the fashion, the daring photography, the edgy documentary, the videos, the romantic links, the foray into electronica, the endless paparazzi shots, the babies and, of course, the name change (I had it first). But though I find her interesting, an inside look at a pre-famous Madonna was not what drew me to read Not About Madonna: My Little Pre-Icon Roommate and Other Memoirs, for it purported to be — as the title suggests —not about Madonna.

Instead, author Whit Hill bills the book as a memoir about a young woman from New York pursuing a career in dance; who attended the University of Michigan in the 1970s; who had a delicate, intense and ultimately heartbreaking relationship with her mother; and who forged a career and a life out of the scraps thrown to artists who never really hit it big. Madonna would play a part as the author’s incidental college roommate, but, again, this was not a memoir about Madonna.

Not About Madonna, however, is definitely about Madonna. It is not solely about Madonna, but the title absolutely seems a ploy to draw in fans of the pop icon. Put Madonna in the title and reference her in the subtitle, adding a cutesy diminutive — which sounds trite until you discover that Madonna and Hill spoke to each other in this way — and the stories alone should tell volumes. Sadly, many of Hill’s stories did not tell volumes, no matter how much I wanted them to.

Taking open liberties with journal entries and the chronology of events, Hill, a songwriter, presents the book as she might a song: written with a light touch, easy to take in, relatable. Yet like a song that is pleasing in the moment but not memorable minutes later, Hill chooses the easy way out, focusing on small interactions with Madonna which only serve to illuminate Hill’s blandness to Madonna’s brass. Madonna, as the more vocal, adventurous and opinionated roommate, could easily serve as the author’s springboard for self-exploration and delving into her own experiences at the time, yet she doesn’t use Madonna this way; instead, Hill keeps the stories on the surface and moves onto the next topic just when it seems a revelatory moment might occur.

Hill also adopts the maddening habit of omitting the conclusions of her anecdotes. She has many moments when she is midstory about an exchange or adventure with Madonna, and then abruptly cuts it off with an “as if I need to tell you that,” breaking the fourth wall and assuming the reader knows all. For example, Hill mentions a “secret” Madonna had told her that she later told “the world,” yet Hill ends the anecdote there and those of us who do not know all of Madonna’s “secrets” are left in the dark. When Hill shares a letter written to her by Madonna, it has a slightly exploitative feel — at this point in the memoir the author has not provided such personal details about the author’s own life, and those eight pages written by Madonna are more telling than the scores of pages which come before.

The second half of the book, however, is a different story. Hill no longer comes off as an oatmeal quasi-dancer seen only refracted through Madonna’s “ray of light,” if you will, but is now a young woman recounting the literal and figurative aches of her profession, the questions that loom over her choices, and the struggles she experiences as she tries to find peace professionally and within her fragmented relationships. A delicate and sensitive weaving of emotion and exploration, it is here — 160 pages in — that we finally begin to get a sense of who Whit Hill is.

With a change in tone, the memoir immediately feels more thoughtful and encompassing of the human experience. When the second half of the book begins, Hill is eight months pregnant. She is introspective, eloquent, curious, frank and truly examining her place in the world. In the scene when she tells her mother — who until now has played a bit part, though we know from Hill’s brief anecdotes and outright telling that her mother represents a huge chunk of Hill’s identity — that she is pregnant, her mother’s isolating reaction is heartbreaking. I only wish the author had not ended that section so abruptly by saying, “That, Madonna, is how I lost my mother.” Tell it for us, I wanted to say, tell it for you. Don’t tell it for Madonna. For the most part, though, Hill holds onto this newfound ease and tone and is truly engaging and insightful.

Overall, the memoir is an enjoyable read. It would have been more enjoyable had the author not prefaced the work with so many prescriptions of what the book is and what it is not. It is not not about Madonna — Hill’s “little pre-icon roommate” is infused throughout most of the book. It is also not the dishfest one might expect of the moments in which we encounter Madonna (though there are hints and visions of the future icon). From the very beginning, we see the author floundering to find firm footing, and when she meets Madonna, her aimless orbit suddenly finds its center, a center she will return to throughout much of the memoir.

In the introduction, Hill writes, “My knowing Madonna has been like the world’s largest, most persistent mosquito, or like a dissertation you were supposed to hand in years ago and just can’t quite wrap your head around.” I couldn’t agree more with Hill’s assessment, and I wish she had squashed that mosquito and allowed herself to really delve deep and find her thesis. It would have been a wonderful paper.

A freelance writer and editor for many years, Esther Dwinell — a self-professed word nerd with wanderlust — currently lives in Los Angeles where she works for Warner Bros. Television. She is always in search of a good story, on the page or off, and enjoys “get[ting] into the groove.”

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