Book Review: How Starbucks Saved My Life

How Starbucks Saved My Life

Note: This is #47 in my 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge for 2008.

Thanks to his privileged upbringing, author Michael Gates Gill is handed a cushy job as an executive at a major advertising agency, but he has to sacrifice a lot of time with his family and opportunities for personal development to succeed. Eventually Gill is unceremoniously fired from that job for being too old and too expensive, and soon after THAT he has an affair that leaves him with a broken marriage and a new son. Gill is edging ever closer to being financially destitute when a 28-year old African American woman managing a Starbucks offers, almost accidentally, this old White man a job as a lowly Starbucks barista. And so begins How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else in which the author re-evaluates all of his assumptions about everything from what makes him happy to the ugliness of class and race inequality.

Okay, as far as memoirs go, this isn’t a bad hook. It was good enough to make me read it, but the problem is that How Starbucks Saved My Life is so badly written and so badly executed on every level that it’s a shoe-in for the worst book I’ll read this year. The ONLY good thing about this book is that it’s giving me the chance to use, without irony, the word “maudlin” to describe it.

This thing has all the art and subtlety of an After School Special for the geriatric set. Not only is the prose clumsy and boring, but I quickly got tired of Gates’s patronizing amazement over everyday things that I can’t believe any person of any intelligence would marvel over. A bucket full of soapy water? ASTOUNDING! People taking the subway to work? INCREDIBLE! A successful Black businesswoman? INCONCEIVABLE! Is he kidding? Does he really expect me to believe him when he claims his mind is blown by these kinds of things? (Answer: yes, he does.)

And that’s not even the worst of it. In a blatant sign of an advertising man trying to turn serious author, Gill seems intent on explaining every single reaction or sentiment you’re supposed to have in response to every one of his stilted expositions. After someone pays him a compliment, for example, Gill looks you in the figurative eye and tells you “This made me happy. Because blah blah blabity blah blah…” and he goes on for a whole paragraph explaining something that he thinks you’re too emotionally retarded to pick up on by yourself. Generally every sentiment and insight and thought is telegraphed in this manner, with the author telling you exactly how you’re supposed to feel or interpret the events of the story, the telling of which is often completely lost in this mawkish exposition.

And this isn’t surprising, considering the author’s background. He may be making change and scrubbing toilets now, but Gill’s legacy as an advertising man is all too apparent. Worse, most of the book reads like some kind of stealth marketing for Starbucks, with everything –EVERYTHING– about the place sold and oversold as some kind of realm of mythical happiness for hourly workers where the baristas belch sunshine and the espresso machines dispense unicorn giggles. With the single exception of one co-worker who tries to get Gill written up for mishandling his cash register, everyone he works with is an overflowing fount of happiness, good intentions, and sentimental epiphanies.

It’s not that I mind some of these things or think these people can’t exist, but the ENTIRE experience is unbelievably hyped and presented in such an artificially positive light that I no longer felt like I was reading an authentic memoir or even a halfway credible fiction, which is the same problem I had with A Million Little Pieces even if it skewed in a slightly different emotional direction. So it’s not only poorly written, but transparently disingenuous as well. Like, I suppose, most other advertising.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: How Starbucks Saved My Life

  1. I recognize the proffered point for “maudlin” and offer an additional one for “mawkish”. And, as a reaction to the mental image of old-white-man-amazed-by-normal-crap I say, “Wow. Seriously?”

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