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A Book Review: The White Lotus

There’s a lot to enjoy in Mike White’s new HBO series The White Lotus: Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s hypnotic score, the incisive performances, the lush, tropical backdrop of the fictional Hawaiian resort from which the series draws its name (the show was filmed at the Four Seasons in Maui). For five weeks, viewers have witnessed White’s characters, wealthy, aloof, and aimless, spiraling in individual orbits of crisis as their every need is attended to exhaustively by the resort staff.

Despite being constantly doted upon, each character is quietly consumed by their inner turmoil: the Sheryl-Sanberg-meets-Gwenyth-Paltrow Nicole Mossbacher, played by Connie Britton, frantically trying to establish a sense of feng shui before taking Zoom meetings from her families suite; her husband, portrayed by Steve Zahn, plunged into uncertainty after discovering an untold truth about his father's death; her loner son, Quinn, constantly at odds with his college-age sister, Olivia, and her friend, Paula. They arrive on the island with a cadre of fellow one-percenters, including a young honeymooning couple, played by Jake Lacy and Alexandra Daddario, and Tracy (Jennifer Coolidge), an unstable alcoholic who has come to the island to spread her mother's ashes.

The characters are entitled, out-of-touch avatars of exorbitant wealth and privilege, living lives almost entirely devoid of adversity or friction. While portrayals of these types of figures can sometimes feel like caricatures, White’s are dimensional; a testament to both his clever dialogue and the attention paid to minute details, like the vacation reading material of each character. From Paglia to Freud, here are the poolside picks of the esteemed guests of The White Lotus.

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell

Shane Patton (Jake Lacy, famous for playing the White Man in every prestigious adjacent television series of the past few years) is the obnoxious rich boy newlywed who first introduces audiences to the ultimate mystery of the series, the death of a character who is as-of-yet undetermined. When he’s not busy with his crusade against the hotel manager, Armand (Murray Bartlett), Patton is seen slowly making his way through the NYT bestseller which advocates for the power of impulsive decision making; the kind of decision making that takes consequences into little account, which typically only those of Patton’s same material privilege are permitted to make.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Alexandra Daddario (Hot mistress of Woody Harrelson in True Detective / prominent member of the B*tches with Blue Eyes alliance) plays the clickbait journalist Rachel, who is struggling to come to terms with her marriage to the ultrawealthy Shane and her newfound trophy wife status. It seems feasible that Rachel would pick up this sentimental novel in the airport to try to distract from her newlywed panic.

The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud

Paula is seen lounging poolside with this text by the founder of psychoanalysis, which explores unconscious wishes and expression through dreams. Perhaps a useful text to have on hand when trying to rationalize Olivia’s seemingly pathological need to undermine her.

The Wretched of the Earth by Franz Fanon

Through Paula’s relationship with Hawaiian native, Kai, viewers are reminded of the violent history of colonization that is the sinister undercurrent of the palatial island retreat. This acclaimed critical analysis of the psychology of colonialism and liberation is a timely read for Paula, struggling to grapple with Kai performing for the parasitic resort guests on stolen land.

Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity by Judith Butler

The White Lotus examines the complicated intersections of class, race, and gender, demonstrating how out-of-touch each of the privileged guests are, like when perpetually exasperated girlboss Nichole waxes poetic about the plight of the straight, white man. Luckily, Paula had philosopher Judith Butler’s 1990 provocative work on gender identity on hand to distract from Nichole’s monologuing.

Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Emily Dickinson to Nefertiti by Camille Paglia

It’s no surprise that Olivia and Paula (whose characters are loosely inspired by Red Scare co-hosts Anna and Dasha) opted for heady, controversial vacation reading material. As Paglia phrased it, the book, which explores the intersection of sexuality and eroticism in nature and culture, was “intended to please no one and to offend everyone.”

The White Lotus season finale airs tonight on HBO

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