Elissa R. Sloan’s debut novel “The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes” balances early 2000s pop nostalgia with a look into the darker sides of the entertainment industry. Taking inspiration from acts like Spice Girls, Britney Spears, and even modern-day groups like One Direction or Fifth Harmony, Sloan tells the story of fictional pop girl group Gloss, a prominent act that reached peak popularity around 2002.
The novel is told through both present-day reflections and throwbacks to Gloss’ rise and fall, all done in an effort to explore the suicide of group member Cassidy “Sassy Gloss” around 15 years after the group’s breakup. Sloan’s debut offers a meaningful glance into the world of the cut-throat music industry for women, but struggles to give its characters distinguishable voices and center in on memorable themes.
“The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes” does a fantastic job creating a world that feels believable and describing instances in the life of a celebrity that would understandably feel dehumanizing. Sloan clearly loves music, and her delving into the world of acts like NSYNC, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera is a fun, nostalgic look at the pop genre and its transition from the late 90s to the early 2000s. The descriptions of music video sets, “MVA” (a take on the VMAs) appearances, and talent competition shows (“Sing It!” is the novel’s “American Idol”) are entertaining and testaments to Sloan’s research and interest in the time period.
She balances these fun moments with poignant scenes that highlight the music industry’s dark sides, which include the effects on many child and teen stars who struggle with mental health and addiction issues as they grow up in the spotlight. “Cassidy Holmes” takes obvious inspiration from the #MeToo movement through characters’ interactions with untoward video directors and celebrities, but also brings up instances of stalkers, negligence in prescribing medication, untreated anxiety, unhealthy dieting, and celebrities’ fear of their personal information being leaked to gossip sites. Despite all the fame and fortune, each Gloss girl, particularly Cassidy, never seems to feel fully happy or supported.
While the author addresses important themes in the novel, she struggles by trying to do too much. There are too many characters in the story, most of whom are forgettable or not essential to the plot, thus, bogging down the storytelling and losing the focus on the main story, which is the life and struggles of Cassidy. Each of the main Gloss girls also struggle to have distinct, complex voices. Despite chapters being told from each of their perspectives, their voices sound the same, and they fall into predictable tropes instead of being fully developed characters unto themselves.
While the novel is still a fun read and does a great job of balancing the shiny world of 2000s pop with the difficult issues that plague celebrity culture, the burdensome number of one-dimensional characters and side plots causes “The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes” to indeed unravel and never fully reach the impressive level of similar books like “Daisy Jones & The Six” or “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo,” recent reads that are also based in telling the stories of fictional celebrities.