Cease to Blush
By Billie Livingston
(Vintage Canada, Paperback, 9780679313236, 480pp.)
Publication Date: June 5, 2007
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Billie Livingston’s fine second novel leads us to consider the nature of our hidden lives and desires — and to question whether the sky would really fall if we admitted our true needs and ceased to blush.
As Cease to Blush opens, Vivian is late to her own mother’s funeral. Wearing a tight red suit, Vivian stands out like a pornographer’s dream amongst the West Coast intellectuals mourning the death of prominent feminist Josie Callwood. But for all of her bravado, Vivian finds herself emotionally numb and spiraling downward. Vivian and her mother were in constant conflict, with Josie disapproving of her daughter’s lifestyle; her inclination to use her body instead of her brain, and her so-called acting career, which has amounted to little more than playing prostitutes and the odd dead body. For her part Vivian has been invested in antagonizing her mother’s feminist ideology. As the story opens Vivian’s career, as well as her relationship with boyfriend Frank, is taking an unsavoury turn as she wades into the quick cash scheme of Internet porn with herself cast in the lead.
But Josie has left a big surprise for her troubled daughter: a trunk full of mementoes from her own past, all of which point to a secret life more exotic than anything Vivian has been able to pull off. Puzzling together bits and pieces, Vivian learns that her mother was at one time a burlesque performer named Celia Dare who rubbed shoulders with the flashiest celebrities of the sixties. Vivian becomes determined to uncover the true story of her mother’s life.
Chasing rumours, Vivian sets off down the Pacific coast and soon finds out that truth is a slippery snake. With only a few of her mother’s letters, some guarded anecdotes from Josie’s former confidant and a slew of books about the sixties, Vivian begins to re-create her mother’s life, placing her at the heart of some of the biggest events and scenes of the era. From the protests and beat coffeehouses of Haight-Ashbury to the frenzied nightlife of Rat Pack Vegas, from the political soirées of New York to mob meetings in glitzy Miami hotels, Celia Dare saw and did it all. Yet the glamour hid an ugly underbelly, and as Vivian peels away the layers of the past she begins to uncover her own emotional truths as well.
Cease to Blush drives the bumpy road from the burlesque stages of Rat Pack Vegas to the bedroom Internet porn business, exploring just how far women have really come. In Vivian, Livingston has created the perfect character through which to explore what it means to be an independent woman today; with Celia/Josie, it’s clear that things weren’t so cut and dry in her day either. Though Celia’s story is told vividly here, its accuracy is impossible to gauge and the ghosts are not talking. But maybe this is Celia’s gift to Vivian: the ability of the past not only to illuminate the future, but to re-imagine it.
Billie Livingston is a fiction writer, poet and sometime essayist who lives in Vancouver, B.C. Born in Hamilton, Ontario, she grew up in Toronto and Vancouver, and has since lived in Tokyo, Hamburg, Munich and London, England. Her first employment was filling the dairy coolers in a Mac’s Milk. She went on to work varying lengths of time as a file clerk, receptionist, cocktail waitress, model, actor, chocolate sampler and booth host at a plumber’s convention.
Cease to Blush (2006) is Billie Livingston’s second novel. Her first, Going Down Swinging (2000), is told from the viewpoints of an alcoholic, downtrodden mother named Eilleen and her struggling daughter Grace. It was received as a brilliant debut, with one reviewer commenting: “Livingston succeeds gorgeously in capturing the messiness and unresolvable ambiguities of familial love. Her lovingly drawn, half-crazy characters always transcend a caseworker’s clichés.” Livingston’s first book of poetry, The Chick at the Back of the Church (2001), was shortlisted for the Pat Lowther Award (for best book of poetry by a Canadian woman), and her award-winning short fiction has been published in Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and Australia. She is currently working on a new novel.
In creating the character of Vivian for Cease to Blush, Livingston drew on a few experiences from her career as a model and actor. For instance, Vivian’s gig as a corpse was based on something that actually happened to Livingston: “They called and asked if I wanted to do a photo shoot for a show called Touching Evil, playing a dead body,” Livingston commented in one interview. “I was dead by the side of a river, and they put strangle marks on my neck. Then they changed their mind. They said, ‘No, wrong corpse.’ Then they put all this white makeup on, wrapped me in a shower curtain and photographed me strangled, on a bathroom floor. So that was why I was there for so long. All the other [dead] girls were sent home after three hours.” But at the same time, Livingston has to laugh when people assume the book is autobiographical — “Yes, every word — in fact I think Bobby Kennedy is my daddy!” — rather than recognizing that the best fiction always draws tidbits from wherever it can, whether inspiration, research or the author’s own life.
In truth, the writing of Cease to Blush couldn’t have happened without Livingston’s extensive research into not only the events of the sixties but also everything from evangelical churches to the porn industry. Fortunately, Livingston has a passion for meeting new people who can take her into their worlds, and has commented, “I really do love talking to strangers… Even when they’re really odd or sort of creepy, there’s a little part of you that kind of — what do I want to say? — it’s almost like you fall in love with them a little bit, because they’re so fascinating. They’re so at odds with anything you’ve ever seen up until that moment.” Not surprisingly, much of Cease to Blush was written on road trips as Livingston went in search of Vivian’s story through the western United States.
To recreate the headiness and tumult of the sixties and the Rat Pack scene, Livingston also turned to the many books and films that provide accounts of the time. Luckily, this research tied in with one of the main themes of Cease to Blush, which is the subjective nature of truth — and especially the difficulty we have in figuring out the “truth” of the past. As Livingston put it in one interview, “I read all those biographies so that I could recreate all of those people, yet you read three biographies of the same person and they’re all different. It calls [the truth] into question: if four people are in a room and an event happens, they all have a different observation of how it all went down.”
“Provocative and wildly fun. Cease to Blush is proof that issue fiction is still being written, and very well too. A great read. You won’t be able to put it down.”
–The Globe and Mail
“Cease to Blush is a well-crafted, thought-provoking novel about where women’s beauty and vanity can take them and how a person’s exterior can hide an unknown story.”
–The Vancouver Sun
"Brazen, fast and wickedly smart, Billie Livingston knocks every gender stereotype you've ever held dear on its ass. Suspenseful and knowing, this novel unveils all the painful bits, the hard knocks and sacrifices between mothers and daughters - how we make each other strong."
–Lisa Moore, author of Alligator
Praise for Going Down Swinging:
“Poignant. . .her flailing, failing, eternally optimistic characters are so wonderful that it’s a joy to stick with them even as they tread water, hardly going anywhere. . . Livingston succeeds gorgeously in capturing the messiness and unresolvable ambiguities of familial love.”
“Livingston kicks the novel up to another level, mastering multiple points of view, deftly switching narrative voices in alternating chapters. . . Her insight into the emotional life of a mother, and her exploration of the love and understanding a child feels for even the most under-qualified parent, reveals a formidable grasp of the mysteries of the human heart.”
–The Vancouver Sun
“Livingston is a compelling new voice – one that should be welcomed and watched.”
–The Globe and Mail
“Billie Livingston vividly captures the heady romance of mother-daughter love, so strengthening in its unconditional acceptance and support, and so wretchedly debilitating in its blindness.”
–The Hamilton Spectator