Thursday, September 13, 2012

Chick Lit Review. Sarah Webb, Zoë Miller and Nicola Doherty.

Review of Chick Lit.
Published in Books Ireland, in May, 2012.

There’s been a lot of discussion, of late, about chick lit. About the term; about the drop in sales; and about just what the genre constitutes. Its detractors mock it. Its most successful practitioners hate the term, denying that their work fits into it. But it’s a handy label for publishers and bookshops to put onto light women’s fiction. And there are still a load of readers making a beeline for those distinctive pastel covers.

It’s an interesting debate. You have women writers jealously denouncing men, whose romantic work, they say, should be given the term. Yet there are several men who have taken on a woman’s name in order to attract a female readership. Michael Scott was a prolific chick lit writer as Anna Dillon; Damian Owens wrote as Alex Coleman, and the recently published ‘Cee’ Liddy, is actually Colm.

Established in Ireland by the big four of Patricia Scanlon, Marion Keyes, Cathy Kelly and Sheila O’Flanagan, chick lit flourished in the boom. A myriad of authors sprung up – often taken on, on the back of a brilliant central ‘idea.’ But many didn’t last the course. And now, with sales down, publishers have become more wary.

We’ve moved, largely, from the designer label, ladies who lunch fiction. Chick lit writers still love fashion, and drink, but the characters often have serious dilemmas to solve. And, just as society is moving towards better neighbourliness, so is chick lit regaining a sense of warmth and fun.

I picked up Sarah Webb’s latest, The Shoestring Club one Saturday morning. And found that I couldn’t put it down again. It centres on Julia Schuster; a zany, fashion mad girl who falls for a dress in her sister’s designer swap-shop. Anxious to wear it to her ex boyfriend’s wedding to her ex best friend, she devises a cunning plan to purchase it.

Everyone loves Jules. They can’t help it. She’s friendly and funny, with a quirky way of dressing. They love her, but they despair of her too. Chronically chaotic, she’s unreliable, and always late. So she loses her job in a boutique, and loses the respect of her family and friends.

Jules narrates the tale, and we realise, pretty soon, why her life is in such a big mess. She’s drinking way too much. No wonder her grandmother, Brid, and her sister, Pandora, unmarried mother to Iris, are so worried about her.

Webb deals with the drink issue with skilful subtlety. We laugh aloud at Jules’s drink induced antics, whilst realising, long before she does, that she has a real problem with it. Jules, we learn, has always been vulnerable. Ever since her mother died, back when she was nine.

Jules, or Boolie, as her family call her, ends up in therapy. And gradually comes to understand just why she relies on drink. This thoughtful themes, weaves through the book, juxtaposing beautifully with the humour and warmth of the main plot.

Jules friends are wonderfully diverse. There’s her ex, Ed, who makes appearances in her life, tempting her off the straight and narrow. There’s Arietta Pilgrim, the elephant keeper at Dublin zoo, who wants to impress her tormentor of old, when she attends her school reunion. There’s the beautiful Pandora, who, Jules feels, deserves a good man in her life. Then there’s Jamie, her best friend who, it seems, is ready to give up on her.

I really loved this book. It’s has everything I want for a satisfying beach read. It’s a heart-warming read, full of characters you’d like to know. It’s frothy style is reminiscent of Sophie Kinsella.

Zoë Miller is the pen name for Mary Bond, who wrote books with Tivoli, the fiction section of Gill and Macmillan, in their brief incarnation. A Family Scandal is her fourth novel with Hachette, and, at just under 450 pages, it has a sexy, bonk-buster feel to it.

Twenty years after the rock star, Zach Anderson, drove his motorbike into a lake, media interest reignites. Not long before his untimely death, he had a brief fling with Dublin actress Vivienne Morgan, which resulted in a love child, Lucy.

The Morgan sisters generally welcome interest from the press. Ellie, a successful fashion designer with a desirable boyfriend, is rarely out of Dublin’s society pages, and the precocious Lucy, trying to make the big time as a London model, needs a high profile. This time, though, media attention freaks her. So she runs home to her big sister for comfort.

Ellie is trying to decide whether to accept Johnny’s proposal of marriage. She keeps putting him off; Lucy’s presence hardly helps, and after a drunken party, she does something unforgivable. Ellie send her back to London, and runs off to New York to lick her wounds.

The middle sister, meanwhile, has emigrated to Hong-Kong. Miranda is bright and beautiful, but has always felt in her sisters’ shadow. Her boyfriends tend to disappear once they’ve met Ellie, and she feels, in Dublin, she can never be herself.

When their mother becomes dangerously ill, her offspring fly in to gather at her bedside. Past, shocking secrets emerge. Will they be able to put it all behind them, and become a united family again?

This is a slickly written novel with wonderful locations and sizzling sex scenes. Miller writes well, and the plot is both interesting, and satisfyingly complex. She makes great use of social media to enhance her plot, yet the main issue – that of sibling rivalry and jealousies is handled sensitively.

When Miranda hears of Ellie’s woes, she doesn’t feel entirely sympathetic, merely thinking, what goes around comes around. The reader, too, gets a tad fed up of her whingeing. But by the end, with secrets exploded, the reason for the sisters’ varying characteristics is made more clear. I was impressed with this saga; and was sorry when I came to the end.

The downturn hasn’t stopped publishers in their search for the next big name. There’s been a steady stream of debut chick lit novels produced this year; and though many of the authors come up with a brilliant plot idea, the writing, too often, falls short.

So I was delighted when I picked up The Out of Office Girl, by Nicola Doherty. From Monkstown, County Dublin, Doherty now lives in London and has worked in publishing. She edited some high profile biographies, and this experience has given her both sound writing skills, and a great theme for her novel.

Alice is in a rut. Her boyfriend has dumped her by text message; her career, in publishing, is going nowhere, and she’s fed up with the rain of the London summer. But when her boss becomes ill, she’s sent to Sicily to help a ghost-writer edit a film star’s autobiography.

Alice idolises Luther Carson, and he doesn’t fall short of her expectation. He’s flirtatious, and great at diverting Alice from work. Arriving with no spare clothes – her case having got lost in transit, Alice feels like an ugly duckling, and the comparison with Annabel, a tiresome starlet whose voice is ‘as sweet, fake, and ice-cold as Diet Coke,’ doesn’t help.

Life improves when a Sicilian resident, Marisa, takes her in hand. She helps Alice buy some stunning new outfits, and Luther seems entranced. But it’s not long before her idyll crash lands. The deadline is approaching, and Luther will not play ball. Another issue is that Luther’s surly manager is trying to block the book. Then the ghost writer’s wife gets cancer, and Alice send him home. Will she be able to deliver?

I simply adored this book, which is escapism at its very best. It reminded me of those early romances of Jilly Cooper – full of fun, warmth and humour. Alice is a gorgeous heroine. She’s scatty and inefficient, but with her talent for empathy, she makes sound moral judgements. As a practising ghost writer, I loved the theme too! And I liked the way Lucas’s flaws and difficulties are brought, gradually to the surface.

The pace picks up towards the end. Alice returns to London triumphant, but there are shocks in store. She has to surmount a number of hurdles before she’s rewarded with her fairytale ending. In all, this is a perfect holiday read.

The Shoestring Club. Pan Macmillan.
A Family Scandal. Hachette Books Ireland
The Out of Office Girl. Headline Review.

© Sue Leonard. 2012.

No comments: