‘Mitzi Bytes’ by Kerry Clare

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Katy MacKinnon

Why must women be only one thing? This is one of many inner crises of Sarah Lundy, the scribe behind the confessional blog Mitzi Bytes, which features prominently in Kerry Clare’s debut novel, and also shares the blog’s title. In Mitzi Bytes, Clare tackles the trials and tribulations of motherhood, self-employment, and the inner process of working through inevitable changes in identity as one’s outer world becomes unrecognizable from what it once was.

Though Mitzi Bytes is Clare’s first novel, her essays and reviews have appeared in Today’s Parent, Prairie Fire, Chatelaine, and the Winnipeg Review. She is the editor of the anthology The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood and the Canlit website 49th Shelf. A blogger herself, Clare posts regularly on her blog, Pickle Me This, where she writes about books, motherhood, and stories about her daily life (in contrast to her protagonist, Clare publishes under her real name).

Mitzi Bytes, told through a mix of third-person narration and first-person blog posts, follows Sarah’s quest for self-acceptance as anonymous reader Jane Q threatens to expose Sarah as the anonymous writer behind the blog. Through school drop-offs for her two children, lunch dates with friends, and her job as a literacy coach for teen mothers, Sarah is challenged to determine where her fictional self (Mitzi) ends and her true self begins—all while dealing with the inner torment of knowing she is about to be exposed by someone close to her, without knowing who that person is.

Clare tells Mitzi Bytes with a clear sense of place. Sarah’s suburban world is relatable through descriptions of mundane daily doings, and plays to the archetype of suburban life as filled with drama and neighbourhood conflict.

A feeling of restlessness is evoked throughout the story, as Sarah grapples with internalized feelings of inadequacy, often brought on by fellow moms from her daughter’s school who think Sarah’s days are spent sitting around and watching television. On the contrary, Sarah keeps busy with freelance projects, appointments, and, of course, her secret blog, but these concepts seem too far-fetched for the full-time working mothers who judge: “When Sarah had said she was really pressed for time, Starry hadn’t believed her. No one ever did. People imagined her days stretched out wide with hours of lying on couches, coffee dates, and pedicures.”

Perhaps most telling of Sarah’s true character are the first-person blog posts scattered throughout the text. While the third-person narration throughout the novel tends to evoke empathy for Sarah’s struggles and loss of identity on becoming a mother, the first-person blog posts do the direct opposite.

Posts “From the Archives” let the reader into Sarah’s past life before meeting her second husband, Chris (or The Programmer, as Mitzi Bytes likes to refer to him). Past sexual dalliances are relayed, dissected, and judged harshly. Behind the cloud of anonymity, Sarah feels free to use her relationships as fodder, often to a point where this reader wonders if Sarah Lundy’s character was intended to be unlikeable.

When Sarah writes in a blog post about courting a puppeteer for a one-night stand prior to meeting her current husband, she uses the man’s first name (instead of a pseudonym as in her usual practice), potentially exposing his identity, and mocks seemingly everything about him. One wonders if her only reason for sleeping with him was to burn him on her blog after the fact. Sarah writes, “I still couldn’t believe it was really his voice. That a person couldn’t help but sound like that. Because couldn’t he have found a way to make it stop?”

This scene marks a turning point in the text, and if Sarah Lundy was moderately likeable before this blog post appears, she is most certainly unlikeable afterward. Past revelations of Sarah’s character are now seen in a new light, and as she continues to fight against Jane Q’s threat to expose her identity, sympathy for her plight begins to wane. Perhaps Sarah deserves what Jane Q threatens.

But even though Sarah’s likeability falters as the novel progresses, Clare’s steady pacing keeps the reader ploughing ahead. Secondary storylines, such as the mysterious goings-on at Sarah’s sister-in-law’s house, assist in holding readers’ attention through the second half of the novel as Sarah’s manipulative nature becomes more apparent.

If the plot of Mitzi Bytes sounds at all familiar, it’s likely because Clare borrows plot elements from the childhood classic Harriet the Spy. However, when considering each protagonist’s likeability, a major difference arises. Harriet is a child, and can easily be forgiven her mistakes. Sarah is a grown woman, and her exploitation of people in her life is much more difficult—if not impossible—to forgive.

Unlikeable women are not new in literature (think Lydia Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, or Amy Dunne from Gone Girl, for example), and the clever progression from likeable to unlikeable in Mitzi Bytes alludes to the complexities of human nature, in that people rarely fall firmly into one camp or the other. Sarah’s struggle with her identity evokes empathy early on, and her thoughts on feminism as it relates to motherhood are scattered throughout the text.

Just as women come in all shapes and sizes, so do opinions on feminist issues. While Sarah grows frustrated with other mothers who judge her, she is quick to pass judgment on them, whether that be in her own mind or on her blog. Of course, feminism does not equate to liking all women—rather, a feminist believes in equal rights for all genders—but Sarah’s take on the way she wishes mothers were treated is in stark contrast to how she treats other mothers.

Mitzi Bytes may be a fun, adult-sized rendition of Harriet the Spy, but more than anything, the novel makes a statement that women are not only one thing. They have the capacity for both good and evil, sometimes coexisting in a way such that it becomes difficult to tell one from the other.

HarperAvenue | 304 pages | $22.99 | paper | ISBN # 978-1443449229

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Katy MacKinnon

Katy MacKinnon is a genderqueer writer based in Winnipeg. Their commentary on feminist issues has appeared in CBC Manitoba, Maclean's, and Daily Xtra. They are currently writing a young adult fiction novel. Follow them on Twitter @kmackwrites and find links to their most recent work at katymackinnon.com/writing