Book Review: The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance: A Memoir by Elna Baker

* Disclaimer: I am not claiming to be an expert in any way on the Mormon religion. After seeing Book of Mormon late last year, and now in reading this memoir, I’m determined to do more research.

“I am at the New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance. That’s right – it’s a Halloween dance not just for the all the single Mormons between the ages of eighteen and thirty who live in Manhattan, it’s for all the single Mormons in the tristate area. That’s a lot of virgins in one room. And I’m one of them.”  - Elna Baker

From the way she first sets the scene, there’s no question that Baker is a true storyteller. As a reader, I was transported immediately. I read her memoir straight through, not realizing that an afternoon had passed. I literally could not put the book down.

Baker, like any strong protagonist, has a very clear dilemma – to be a good Mormon, or to date in New York City. She tries for several years to blend the two, and with each hilarious vignette, it becomes clearer and clearer that it’s like mixing oil and water.

I’m always fascinated by stories that question religion, long-held assumptions, and ways of life. I found it particularly compelling that Elna didn’t continue to be a practicing Mormon because her family wanted her to be, although it seemed to be an added pressure, but that she truly had faith in her religion, even when it so directly conflicted with how she wanted to spend her time and how she wanted to live her life.

In some ways, if you take the religion part out of it, Baker’s story is yet another story of a single girl trying to find love in New York. There are the stock set of characters – the first embarrassing crushes, the creepy guy (who happens to be a celebrity who Baker does not name in this case), and the slightly unattainable guy (who happens to be an atheist, as luck would have it). Besides the plethora of horrible first dates, Baker struggles with her weight, a fairly universal struggle for women. She goes on this extreme diet, loses a significant amount of weight, and then realizes the dietician had put her on speed. There’s where the narrative diverges from the common tale, and she talks about how that experience made her lose a bit of faith in God, since she thought God had played a big hand in her weight loss.

Throughout the book, Baker writes lists of what she believes currently (at various ages – 18, 22, 25, etc.), and what she used to believe. Gradually, you can see her belief column shrinking, which as a reader made me both sad and almost relieved at the same time. I really felt her conflict, since the religion she had so much faith in seemed to prevent her from doing so many things she wanted to do, and was such a source of conflict.

This memoir was written in 2009, so I did some quick research and found, not to my complete surprise, that Baker did in fact leave the Mormon Church. She wrote an article a few years ago about attending her sister’s wedding and having to wait outside during the actual ceremony, and then joining in for the reception. It made me really sad to get a small glimpse of what it must have been like to make that decision, and how that decision must keep playing out in her life.

I wonder if Baker would have left the Mormon religion if she had gotten married when she was young, as most Mormons, from the picture she painted, appeared to do. It seems as if some of her most central dilemmas surrounded relationships, and I can’t help but wonder if the messy business of dating simply doesn’t fit in well with the Mormon religion (from the limited bits and pieces that I’m starting to put together).

Above all, for me, Baker’s honesty is the most compelling part about this memoir. She wrestles with her faith and what that directly means for her life in a way that’s charmingly disarming. One of my favorite moments is when she dresses up in lingerie for her atheist boyfriend, tries to have sex with him, and sabotages it because she keeps asking him to pray. Trust me, you’ll want to indulge in this read. It’s funny, poignant, and relatable – no matter what religion, relationship status, or viewpoints you hold.

Have you read this book? If so, what did you think?