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Mindy Kaling’s new essays are lightweight entertainment for trying times

(Amazon Original Stories)

Ten years ago, I interviewed Mindy Kaling when she happened to be working on her first essay collection, “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns).” Her essays, she said, would be deliberately breezy, e.g. the reason flowers make bad host gifts (because you’re forced to abandon your guests to find a vase and trim stems). If Larry David was comedy’s rancorous authority on well-meaning gestures gone wrong, Kaling could be a more relatable counterpart, doling out social criticism that didn’t jab so much as nudge-nudge.

At the time, Kaling was best known for playing boy-crazy Kelly Kapoor on NBC’s “The Office” (for which she was also a prolific writer), so she was already associated with flippant quips (“I talk a lot, so I’ve learned just to tune myself out”). Anyone who picked up “Everyone” — a bestseller — hoping to know more about her would, yes, learn about Kaling’s first-generation Indian American upbringing, her comedy-writer aspirations and big break on “The Office.” But they would also ingest a solid helping of frothy listicles about “Best Friend Rights and Responsibilities” and “Franchises I Would Like to Reboot.” Kaling leaned into her alter ego — conceding people “assume I am Kelly Kapoor” anyway — by including a list of “Things Kelly and I Would Both Do” (“Go to every day”).

Mostly, she kept the book light, as promised. “If I had all these vices, like an addiction to plastic surgery, and I slept around,” she told me at the time, “then every year I would come out with a bestseller . . . because I know I could make a lot of money doing that. But that’s not why people are interested in me.”

Mindy Kaling’s new book ‘Why Not Me?’ reads like . . . Mindy Kaling

People are very interested in Kaling, and not for her vices. She has kicked through meaningful doors as the first Indian American to create and star in her own TV show (“The Mindy Project”). She found success channeling her “otherness” into mainstream art, like “Late Night,” the film she wrote about being a woman on a mostly White male writing staff, and “Never Have I Ever,” the Netflix hit she created about a suburban teen trying to reconcile her Indian and American identities. So if her tendency in writing personal essays is to be more slapdash or exploratory of her Kapoor-ish qualities — Kaling, like Kapoor, is a celebrity junkie and rom-com fiend, after all — then, sure. Fluff is good! Fluff is keeping us all going.

And yet, with her third essay collection, “Nothing Like I Imagined (Except for Sometimes),” I simply wanted more. (The six stories in the collection are being sold individually as Amazon Original Stories; Amazon’s chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) Seven years removed from her run as Kapoor, having achieved leverageable power in Hollywood while also navigating single motherhood (daughter Katherine was born in 2017), Kaling’s life has fleshed out in substantial ways that make her essays feel frustratingly inconsequential.

A story about her first days in Los Angeles sets up a character-building journey in which a crushingly lonely Kaling tries to make friends but then skips to the part where she ditches her starter squad for being too-healthy eaters who drink tea instead of Bellinis (“Eating in an ascetic way at a Sunday brunch brings me no relaxation or pleasure, and isn’t that what Sunday brunches are for?”). When she teases a telling detail that might reveal something about the friends who fell short, and also about her — “I was surprised by how none of the women spoke truly candidly about anything” — she doesn’t elaborate. She ghosts the group, and kind of ghosts the reader, too.

There are observational gems, like the notion of “pity-patter” — when Kaling’s married friends play “a sophisticated . . . mind game” of “feigning [a] desire to be single in an attempt to make the single mom feel better about being husband-less.” But rather than investigate her choice to raise her daughter as a single woman, Kaling ticks off a list of “Times I Wish I Had a Husband” (“When I Need to Reach Things”) and “Times I’m Happy I Don’t Have a Husband” (“When I Remember Both Nightstands Are Mine”). For a self-professed romantic who helped craft the achingly nuanced courtship between “The Office’s” Jim and Pam — and earned an Emmy nomination for co-writing “Niagara,” the tender episode where they get married — Kaling’s view of modern partnership feels far less considered. “After he puts a ring on it,” she muses in a bit about driving, “you always end up riding in the passenger seat.”

Is Kaling being glib for the punchline or sincere? Probably the former. In any case, it seems fitting that she’s currently co-writing the script for “Legally Blonde 3”: Like Elle Woods, Kaling’s unseriousness belies a capacity to outsmart everyone in the room. I admire this duality; I only hoped to glimpse more of her behind-the-scenes thoughtfulness, rather than the dogged levity — the bend-and-snap, if you will — that defines her public persona.

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Sometimes, Kaling does dig deep. An essay about her daughter’s Mundan, a Hindu head-shaving ceremony to rid a baby of negative past-life energy, raises poignant questions about a parent’s spiritual responsibility. And a sweet recollection about the baby nurse who helped her through her first months of motherhood — five years after her mother died — is especially affecting. But these impacts tend to get lost in the midst of so much filler: I’m not sure even a superfan would be compelled to learn, in an addendum titled “What I Do All Day,” that one of Kaling’s “favorite way[s] to unwind is to wrap a present.”

Then again, maybe? Those superfans — who “routinely ask [Kaling] to be their best friend,” as she writes — are legion. For everyone else, reading “Imagined” in a decidedly unbreezy time is like eating just the whipped cream off a brownie sundae. As long as you’re devouring empty calories — from a world-class pastry chef — a little chew would be nice.

Rachel Rosenblit is a freelance writer and editor in New York.

Nothing Like I Imagined (Except for Sometimes)

By Mindy Kaling

Amazon Original Stories. Stories range from 11 to 35 pp. $1.99 each.

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