British Chick Lit

My Not So Perfect Life     Sophie Kinsella     (2017)

The British writer Sophie Kinsella is a phenomenon in the chick lit genre. Her nine novels in the Shopaholic series (starting with Confessions of a Shopaholic, 2001) have sold in the millions and have been translated into 30 languages. She’s also written eight standalone novels under the Sophie Kinsella pen name. Writing under her actual name, Madeleine Wickham, she has another eight titles. I decided to find out for myself why this author is so popular around the world.

My Not So Perfect Life is one of the standalone novels, so Kinsella has to set up and then wrap up her story in one volume. In some ways it’s a straightforward romantic tale: struggling young working class woman falls for fabulously wealthy guy. But then added in to the mix is a small-scale workplace mystery, plus the British obsession with social class, accent, and county of birth.

Katie Brenner, age 28, is a low-level employee at a London branding firm that creates images and advertising campaigns for consumer products. She’s from rural Somerset, in the southwest of England, but her dream has been to live in London. Katie is barely surviving, sharing a miserable flat with two odd characters, enduring a lengthy commute, and navigating complex office politics. But she posts idyllic photos of London scenes on Instagram to lead her followers to believe that she’s happy. Her boss, Demeter Farlowe, seems to have a perfect life—perfect job, perfect family, perfect clothes, perfect makeup. Katie wants to be Demeter, and she’s taken steps in that direction, preparing a portfolio of branding designs and ideas, with hopes of rising in her profession. She’s worked to eliminate her Somerset accent and has styled herself as “Cat” instead of “Katie.” She’s also met and fallen for one of the executives of the firm.

A crisis comes when Katie gets fired. She has no choice but to return to Somerset, though she tells her family that she’s on “sabbatical” from her job. This is handy, since her father and stepmother are launching a glamping business, turning their farm into a glamorous high-end campground. Katie does a terrific job of setting up and promoting the business. Then who should appear for a week of elegant camping in Somerset but Demeter and her family. Comedy and romance ensue.

I found some of Kinsella’s plot elements contrived and tedious. For example, Demeter, who doesn’t recognize the Somerset version of Katie, agrees to undergo a fake Druid ritual that’s deeply humiliating. However, Kinsella makes Katie a pretty convincing character through first-person narrative. Readers may come to cheer Katie on as she resolves the rural/urban conflict and figures out her career and relationship options. She even becomes more honest in her Instagram posts. Here’s one of Katie’s conclusions:

“I think I’ve finally worked out how to feel good about life. Every time you see someone’s bright-and-shiny, remember: They have their own crappy truths too. Of course they do. And every time you see your own crappy truths and feel despair and think, Is this my life, remember: It’s not. Everyone’s got a bright-and-shiny, even if it’s hard to find sometimes.” (417)

A Reunion Romance

Miss You     Kate Eberlen     (2016)

Reunion Romances: You may not know the category name, but you’ve probably read one at some point. In a Reunion Romance, the two protagonists are not attracted to each other at their first meeting or are somehow thwarted in romance. They meet again at a later time—often years later—and then really hit it off romantically. Sometimes the protagonists meet several times before realizing how suited they are to each other. The tension in Reunion Romances arises from seeing the diverging paths of the protagonists and then watching those paths converge.

In Miss You, Kate Eberlen offers a Reunion Romance with a twist: the two protagonists, Tess and Gus, don’t actually meet until the very end of the novel. Well, they do see each other in passing many times over a period of about sixteen years, and through odd coincidences, they just miss meeting a couple more times. Anticipating and then spotting their meetings is kind of like watching Alfred Hitchcock’s brief background appearances in each of his films.

Eberlen has constructed, in effect, two separate coming-of-age novels, one about Tess and one about Gus, that link after 400 pages. In August 1997, when Tess is eighteen, she takes a European backpack vacation with a friend before she’s scheduled to start at university in London in the fall. Gus, who is also eighteen and also heading to university, is in Italy with his parents, and all three are still grieving from the recent death of Gus’s older brother. In Florence, Tess and Gus run into each other at tourist spots (a basilica, a gelateria) and exchange a few words, but they never introduce themselves. That’s it. Neither one remembers or thinks about the other for many years, although they meet or almost meet several more times.

In Miss You, the individual stories of Tess and Gus, each presented in first-person narrative, are well developed. Both characters face frustrations in achieving the goals they’ve set for themselves in life. Tess has to give up her plans for university when her mother dies, leaving Tess to care for her younger sister, who has Asperger’s Syndrome. Gus, living in the shadow of his deceased brother, is pushed into studying medicine when he’d have preferred a career in the arts. Over time, Tess and Gus both have relationships with other people, but those relationships never quite work out.

Eberlen gives us full pictures of Tess and Gus, especially as they deal with the ongoing sadness of losing a close family member. And their sadness is not the same: Tess loved her mother dearly, whereas Gus was constantly bullied by his brother. The secondary characters, some of whom are doozies, come to life as well. The backdrop of London is lovingly described in many passages. Here’s one, with Tess narrating:  “No movie I’ve seen captures London’s variety: the serene elegance of the white stucco buildings; the improbable red-brick Christmas cake of the Royal Albert Hall, golden Albert glinting in the sunshine; horses galloping on Rotten Row; crazy swimmers diving into the Serpentine; and, near Hyde Park Corner . . . gardens with luscious herbaceous borders and pergolas of roses, planted and tended for no other reason than to give people color to look at.” (352)

Miss You is a fun read that would be especially good to take on vacation or on a long plane trip. Sure, there are a few contrived plot elements. For example, in a city with more than eight million inhabitants, it’s not likely that Tess and Gus would end up living on the same street. But that’s the stuff of Reunion Romance! By the middle of the book I was rooting for Tess and Gus, who are kindhearted and generous people, hoping that they would find happiness.

Manhattan 1952/2016

The Dollhouse     Fiona Davis     (2016)

By chance, I’ve been reading and reviewing a number of novels set in New York City lately. If you’re weary of fictional trips to Manhattan, you may want to skip to another blog post. If you’re up for one more saunter down those fabled sidewalks, here we go.

In The Dollhouse, Fiona Davis jumps back and forth between the years 1952 and 2016 to draw fictional portraits of women who live in the same building in New York City, separated by sixty-four years. The building, depicted on the book’s cover, is real. The Barbizon Hotel for Women, built on the Upper East Side in 1927, was home to generations of young females pursuing careers as editors, models, and secretaries. After the hotel was converted to condos in 2005, one floor was set aside as rent-controlled apartments for long-time residents, and this is where 1952 meets 2016.

Darby McLaughlin is the main 1952 character, fresh out of high school and freshly arrived at the Barbizon from Defiance, Ohio, to attend the famed Katherine Gibbs Secretarial School, with tuition paid by her deceased father’s life insurance proceeds. The innocent and awkward Darby gets caught up in a plot of sex, drugs, and bebop, centering around a sleazy jazz club.

Rose Lewin is the main 2016 character, a former local television news star in her mid-thirties, now working for an Internet news startup. At the beginning of the novel, the sophisticated and savvy Rose is living in her boyfriend’s condo in the Barbizon. She’s soon facing both personal and professional crises, as she decides to research and write about the octogenarian women in the Barbizon, who came of age in a distant, almost mythical, era.

The narrative of The Dollhouse is slow to accelerate. I looked forward to the 2016 chapters as I cringed my way through the 1952 chapters, in which Darby is ridiculed and deceived by her hallmates at the Barbizon. The pace picks up when the modern-day Rose becomes obsessed with the events of 1952 and unlayers a key mystery, using reportorial tactics that she knows are unethical.

Darby and Rose are convincing characters, as are several of the supporting cast. The descriptions of Rose’s boorish young boss, Tyler, are trenchant. In one meeting with Rose, “he held a pen under his nose as if it were a mustache, curled up his lip to support it without any hands.” Tyler performs this maneuver while making misogynist comments about Rose’s writing project. Less successful is the depiction of Jason Wolf, a potential love interest for Rose. Jason appears in the story too fortuitously and is too much of a hunk.

Sylvia Plath keeps popping up in The Dollhouse, too. She actually lived at the Barbizon during the summer of 1953 when she was an intern in New York City, and she refers to the hotel in The Bell Jar. This association becomes a running joke in The Dollhouse, as Rose assures one interviewee after another that she is not writing another story about Plath.

The Barbizon itself has a central role in The Dollhouse, titled for the name that young men in New York presumably gave the building back in the day. It’s possible that Fiona Davis chose her title also as an echo of Ibsen’s The Doll’s House, the controversial 1879 drama about the place of women in the home and in society. Davis wades in to the continuing controversy. Is Rose too dependent on the approval of the men in her life? Does Darby make too many sacrifices for the men (and women) in hers? Are teenaged girls always a little crazy? Can their fathers rescue them with (a) kindness or (b) tough love? Are 2016 women different from 1952 women in substance or only in terminology? And is their place in American society really much different?

A Smart Mom in Seattle

Today Will Be Different     Maria Semple     (2016) 

She’s sassy, she’s manic, she’s self-absorbed. Eleanor Flood is a hot mess as Today Will Be Different opens. She’s resolving that she’ll do better, but the reader knows by about paragraph six that the day coming up will be different in ways that Eleanor does not expect.

I didn’t much like the personality of Eleanor, who’s a fifty-year-old animation artist living the dream in Seattle. Eleanor's supporting cast, however, is appealing. Her surgeon husband is a truly good guy, aptly named Joe. Their eight-year-old son is earnest and caring. The academic whom Eleanor hires to give her private poetry appreciation lessons has his own wacky and touching sub-plot. Even the dog is lovable in a we-put-up-with-his-foibles kind of way.

But Eleanor doesn’t get much sympathy from me. Maybe it’s because she’d prefer to live in Manhattan and is affecting Manhattan introspection and angst. 

The action does adhere pretty well to the Aristotelian unities that the author, Maria Semple, implicitly sets up by starting the novel with Eleanor’s resolutions for this one day in her life. We careen through the streets of Seattle, by car and on foot, as Eleanor abandons her self-improvement quest to instead solve a mystery about her husband. Semple weaves red herrings into this plot and fills in Eleanor’s family story with large sections of flashbacks, some set in New Orleans.  

The color drawings (done by Eric Chase Anderson) in the chapter called “The Flood Girls” are part of this slowly revealed backstory. These illustrations, presented as part of the fictional Eleanor’s art portfolio, fascinated me. I kept turning back to them as Eleanor referred in the text to the people depicted.  Because the character of Eleanor is an artist, this set of drawings didn’t come off as gimmicky.

I had some quibbles with the narrative voice in Today Will Be Different. Most of the book is in first person, with Eleanor narrating. Semple should stick with that so that the reader shares Eleanor’s lack of all the facts as she tries to solve the mystery. But toward the end of the book Semple veers off for scenes with Joe that Eleanor is not privy to. I consider this plot-cheating. I also found the ending of the book a let down, even though I enjoyed much of the ride to get there.

Today Will Be Different has some echoes of Semple’s 2012 novel, Where’d You Go, Bernadette. Both books satirize Seattle, specifically mocking the rich parents who send their children to elite private schools. Both take on the serious topic of how talented women married to talented men struggle to produce creative work when they also have to raise the children. Even if the husbands and the children are charming and supportive, it’s tough. 

Those New York Novels

The Ramblers     Aidan Donnelley Rowley (2016)

(plus brief notes on novels by Adelle Waldman and Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney)

First, a sidebar.

Maybe I should stop reading these inbred New York City novels. Maybe only New Yorkers can sense where the satire starts. But I read a lot of fiction, and I’ve taught fiction to a lot of college students, so I should be able to discern satire, right? Even if I’m a Midwesterner?

I look back at a couple of other New York novels. I’m pretty certain that Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. (2013) is sardonically mocking the callous, self-satisfied male New Yorkers who wreak havoc on the psyches of brilliant, sensitive female New Yorkers. Waldman’s view into this world is morbidly fascinating but morbid nonetheless.

Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest (2016) is less clear on the satire front. Four siblings fight over their inheritance, which has been greatly depleted by a payout to cover up a crime by one of the brothers. Should I care about the quarrels of these disagreeable, money-grubbing characters, even if the plot is a tight one? Am I supposed to care, or am I supposed to recoil in horror?

This issue is not settled, but let’s move on to the main review.

The Ramblers, by Aidan Donnelley Rowley (2016), brings us three more New Yorkers who have too much money and too many drinks. Admittedly, Clio Marsh was born middle class, but she’s pulled herself up by the proverbial bootstraps to earn a PhD in ornithology. And she lives nearly rent-free as roommate to Smith Anderson, a daughter of the 1% who declutters the Manhattan apartments of her private clients. The third profiled character is Tate Pennington, who has accidentally made a fortune in the tech world and retired to New York to take street photographs and escape his estranged wife in California.

All three are in their mid-30s, yet they prate endlessly about their undergraduate days together at Yale and enter into petty squabbles about the relative advantages of Princeton. Really? So you’ve read Foucault. I’m not impressed, though I think that the author, herself a Yalie, expects her readers to be.

Because the three protagonists are in their mid-thirties, they all long to be in committed relationships. This is a standard feature of the modern New York novel, though it’s usually only the women or the gay men who crave a long-lasting, monogamous marriage. The entire plot of The Ramblers revolves around the achievement of perfect domestic partnerships, but I couldn’t feel much sympathy for these three privileged strivers. They’re stock characters in a flat drama. Clio worries that the revelation of her mother’s mental illness and suicide will derail her affair with a wealthy bachelor fifteen years her senior. Smith won’t distance herself from her malicious father, even though this creepy father browbeat her fiancé into breaking up with her. And Tate salves the wounds made by his unfaithful wife with excessive amounts of alcohol, but he still shoots stunning photos.

The dialogue of the thirty-something women in The Ramblers does have sparkle, but when I hit some scenes with older women or with men (older or not), I found myself stopped mid-page by the inaptness of tone and the cliché-ridden sentences. Wait, I thought, is the author satirizing this character? We’re back to that issue of inadvertent satire again.

If I’m so irritated by these self-aggrandizing characters and their $30 bottles of organic hair conditioner, why do I keep reading New York novels? Why did I ever get past page 50 of The Ramblers? Simple: I have a weakness for the New York part.

For instance, the title of The Ramblers refers to an area in Central Park called The Ramble, a semi-wild nature area in the middle of Manhattan, popular for those seeking outdoor gay sex, which has also become a favored site for birdwatchers. The character Clio leads public birding tours through The Ramble on Sunday mornings and gets written up in the local press. Tate, meanwhile, is a walking guide book to the poetic and architectural history of the city, seeking out the haunts of Stanley Kunitz and Dylan Thomas. Smith’s sister gets married in the cavernous, barrel-vaulted St. Bart’s Episcopal Church, with the reception at the ultra-glamorous Waldorf. The action of the novel takes place during the week of Thanksgiving, so the author can call up glorious late autumn days as well as the edge of silver-bell cheeriness for the upcoming Christmas season. In sum, the NYC of The Ramblers is more vividly portrayed than its inhabitants.

True, for heavy New York atmosphere, you can’t beat author Jay McInerney, and I’ve acknowledged this in a recent blog post reviewing his 2016 novel Bright, Precious Days. I detect satire in some of McInerney’s characters, but he fleshes them out so well and surrounds them with so much New York detail that I tumble right into their lives nonetheless.

And for a weekly dose of New York, I turn to the New Yorker. I can imagine myself at the openings of art exhibits and plays listed at the front and then settle in for some serious journalism, not necessarily about New York, by writers like Adam Gopnik, Joan Acocella, Jill Lepore, Hilton Als, Larissa MacFarquhar, Elizabeth Kolbert, Kalefa Sanneh, Jane Mayer, and Ryan Lizza. Gotta love it.