Friday, February 12, 2010

The Undomestic Goddess – Sophie Kinsella

I'll start by saying I really enjoyed this. I feel I have to say that because I know I'm going to start with a long ramble and if anyone were to stop halfway through they might otherwise get the wrong idea.

To begin with, I found this book quite hard to read. Not because of the writing, of course, but once I got to the point where the main character Samantha's world falls apart because of a piece of paper left unnoticed on her desk … well, that touched a nerve. I'm not very organized myself, and was always getting in trouble at school because I simply couldn't remember to, for example, pack the right books in my bag every day, do the right homework, or collect the report card I was given for not doing those things from the teacher at the end of every lesson. In the end I solved the book problem by carrying all my books to school every day, whether I needed them or not, and ignoring the people who teased me for bringing the wrong books in. No problem is so big it can't simply be avoided.

So I was paranoid that as soon as I got a proper job – if I ever managed to get a proper job – I'd be fired for losing a key document or forgetting to turn up to a meeting. When I did get a proper job, as a civil servant, that fear drove me to develop the most anal systems to make this less likely to happen. No problem is so big it can't simply be avoided. As a result, bizarrely, I developed a reputation in the team for being well-organized and being able instantly to put my hand to any document I was asked for (filing systems … good preparation for my current work in software). Of course, I refused to lend anyone the document they asked for – I had to take it myself to the photocopier, give them the copy, then file the original again – otherwise I couldn't guarantee not losing it.

So when I read about Samantha's world exploding because she mislays a document on her desk and forgets to file it before the required date (and as a result loses the client 50 million pounds), my brain is shouting at me. Any system where a mistake like that can have any consequences at all is rubbish. People should be allowed, no, expected to make mistakes like that. There should be systems, checks. If that happens and someone loses 50 million, EVERYONE should be fired. Aargh. Rant over.

Then and only then I got to the chapter where she accidentally gets a job as a housekeeper. With the best will in the world, I couldn't find that chapter entirely believable. (Although, they say, you get one “gotcha” for free in any novel, and I knew that was this book's. You just have to say, let's just accept this and see what happens).

To make this worse, the reason I had so much time to read this was that I've been ill all week – cold and tonsilitis – ill enough that I couldn't manage to do anything beyond working and reading. And here's me, stressed about work, and ill, and reading about a woman so stressed about work that she has a nervous breakdown. What timing.

At this point, after seven chapters, I was really struggling. But fortunately I know several people who really rate this book (or at least who own it), and I've liked the other Sophie Kinsellas I've read, so I felt I should persevere. I figured at this point that the heart of the book was about this woman having to adapt to being a “domestic”, to doing all the ordinary house-y things that she never had time to do before; about the humour of this brilliant woman being all at sea, and presumably using her brilliance to simply avoid (i.e., work around) the problems she can't deal with. That being the case, I thought, why didn't the book just start with her waking up in her room the day after she arrives, and why did she have to keep contacting people at work? But I was wrong, wrong about what this book was about, and it's just as well I kept on reading.

For a while you get her being rubbish in the kitchen (some of it stuff anyone really ought to know, although given her background in the book, her complete and utter domestic incompetence is entirely credible). Then you get her starting to learn, and forming a new and totally different kind of romantic relationship (i.e., with someone who isn't a lawyer who charges their time in six-minute slots – again, aargh, I absolutely loathe timesheets and mine are only in half hours, and on a good week I can just book five days to the same thing). I remember with surprise seeing I was on page 191, half way through the book, and feeling I'd only just got started with the funny domestic stuff and being disappointed that there wasn't going to be enough of it.

And then Samantha comes back into the orbit of her old job again, when she realizes that there's more to her departure than she thought, and that she may have been used as part of a fraud by her old boss. At which the book changes again, into a story of legal intrigue. Great fun, and by this point I was already hooked. Finally, totally exhonerated and offered not just her old job back but a fantastic dream job (I didn't believe that, but who cares), she has to choose between the career she always wanted and a getting a real life, and after yet more twists and turns – when I thought everything was sown up – the book finally reaches a happy ending.

In the end, this book had loads of really brilliant things in it. It was funny (“Six minutes isn't sex. Six minutes is boiling an egg.”) Romantic (same bit. And the bit with the bread). And thought-provoking.

More than anything, this book is about the question of work-life balance, and there are few more important issues today than that. It also touches on some of the issues particular to women in work – when Sam is berated as a Judas by feminists for giving up her high-powered city job to work as a housekeeper and saying that she's actually happier like that. (Note: that's very much not the message this book is giving.)

There's also the whole question of parental and personal pressure to “be all you can be”, to make the most of the gifts and talents you have. That's a really hard one, and one I really struggle with myself. I believe that with ability comes responsibility, to put it to good use, but how far should that go? Is there a balance to be struck between making the most of your God-given talents and actually having a life as well? And how do I deal with that with my own children, who are both outstanding / exceptional / egregious in their own little ways? (As, I believe, is everyone – we can all be superheros, but I won't go into that one here). Significantly, although Samantha's mother in paricular is a major presence in the book, she never actually appears in person – she's always too busy.

I loved the way that people and relationships in the book are never simple (just like in real life). Arnold, the kind boss, turns out to be a fraudster who stitches her up. Guy, the star-crossed love she never quite got it together with, goes from Mr. Nice to Mr. Evil and back (in fact he gets arguably the most jaw-dropping, add-extra-dimension-of-complexity moment in the book), but in reality turns out to be a bit of both. The lawyers generally are not portrayed as evil, simply as people living in such blinkered little boxes that they cannot see the world outside. And I loved the way that Samantha goes crawling to Kellerman, who she absolutely does not get on with, in the knowledge that he at least will know to treat her professionally. In some way I can't quite explain there was something almost Jesus-like in that. Philippians 2:5-11?

In summary, this book wasn't quite what I expected, but it was better.


Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Bridget Jones The Edge of Reason – Helen Fielding

After reading the first one …

It's obviously difficult writing a sequel. On the one hand, you want to capture what made the original book a success (you don't write a sequel if it wasn't); on the other hand, you don't want to write the same book over again. And worse still, if the original was a book that broke new ground, you're worse off, because it's impossible to break the same ground twice.

I remember when I read “Man and Wife”, the follow-up to “Man and Boy”, thinking that it was pretty much the same story again.

So what about this book? There were points when I felt it was falling into the same trap –probably mostly connected to her break-up with Mark Darcy, although I can't actually remember for sure when I was thinking that, and her mum's relationship with Wellington. And there was a point in the book where I felt Bridget had finally crossed that infinitesimal line between endearingly bonkers and Too-Stupid-To-Live – most notably, when she fails to catch the plane to Rome to interview Colin Firth. And for large chunks of her break-up with Mark Darcy you just want to tell her to blinking well talk to the guy. I really don't like stupid misunderstanding as a plot device, even when as here it's the result of her funny and very silly confused dependency on self-help books.

But there were loads of things I did like. The character of Rebecca (who comes out quite differently from the film – shame I saw it the wrong way around as otherwise that would have been an even better twist); the self-referencing – her interviewing Colin Firth, who played Darcy in the film (don't remember that from the film but it would have been very funny, like Julia Roberts' failed impression of herself in Ocean's Twelve); the way Bridget comes into her own when thrown in jail in Thailand (great in the film too, but differently so); and the way she actually manages to hold down a job. It had a bit of a nice happy ending (all comedies end with a wedding … all very soppy). I liked the bit character of Wellington too (“In the darkness the stone becomes the buffalo. In sunlight all is as it is”). But of course the best thing about the book is Bridget and her friends.

This book couldn't do what the original did – introduce the world to Bridget and her type. But it didn't need to. In the end I didn't feel it was a retread of the original; just that it was a good laugh, and that however stupid Bridget might be, she comes good in the end.


Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Bridget Jones's Diary – Helen Fielding

So I've finally got around to reading this – years after seeing the film. It's so famous I can't say much about it, except that bits of it were laugh-out-loud funny and I really enjoyed it.

I remember when this came out. Everyone was reading it (I lived in London on the time and you would see it every time you got on the tube) and everyone was imitating it. I think part of why it was such a hit – other than it simply being funny – was because there is so much truth in it. Bridget sums up real experiences. As I remember it, too, this book created and defined the genre of chic-lit. I wonder if that's true?

It was difficult reading this after seeing the film. For a start, the characters I remembered I saw as they were cast – except for Bridget, for some reason. And I felt like I knew what was coming – even through I couldn't remember much of the film and the book was different anyway. But brilliant anyway.