The girl enters the room – and your brain – with a start. She’s probably talking to one of her friends, she’s establishing herself very quickly as the Nice One. Her friends may be catty or manic or anal retentive, our girl is soothing, solving their problems kindly, even as she turns the subject to her own issues. Her friends jump in, they are great now, in an instant they have switched from weeping about a) bad husbands, the friends are usually married b) the lack of men (except for the friends who are single) or c) bad bosses (the friends are not great employees, but that’s okay, because usually neither is the girl.)
You’re already hooked, you’re thinking who is this girl and wow, she’s capable of being funny even when everything is tragic and eventually you think, oh, that man she’s talking to, is she going to kiss him? And when she does kiss him – you know he’s the right man even if a confusing Wrong Man was tossed at you between pages 25 to 102, because he is rarely critiqued.
And if he is, it’s for things like him working too hard. Or being too ethical. Or for believing the girl was Better Than This, which was a comic misunderstanding, you see, and actually the girl was Better Than This, except because he works too hard and is so ethical, she didn’t get a chance to explain it to him.
Welcome to chick lit
Sophie Kinsella is the pen name for Madeleine Sophie Wickham, under which name she also published in the past. I actually thought Madeleine Wickham was her pen name, it has such a glamorous dashing ring to it, like, oh, Barbara Cartland or some other romance novelist.
Kinsella’s newest book I Owe You One (tagline: love means all debts are off) arrived quietly, no floods of bookstagrammers falling over themselves to post pictures with it, no long interviews with Kinsella being quote-tweeted everywhere by serious people, and so I was quite surprised when I brought it up with different groups of people and all of them said, “Oh, the newest one! I hear it’s very good!”
I shouldn’t have been surprised. I have known for years that that’s how chick lit operates. Readers don’t wave it about like flags or even post those pictures, you’ve seen them: white bedsheets, book, vase of carefully deconstructed twigs, maybe a set of feet in pristine white socks you feel sure have been opened out of a fresh package for the occasion. Perhaps it’s because the covers still haven’t moved with the times.
Don’t judge by its cover
Instead of the typographical heavily graphic covers that are all the rage, I Owe You One is an untrendy lilac (not even millennial pink!) with a font I’d describe as a mix between Times New Roman and Cambria. There’s nothing happening on this cover, literally it looks like some student friend of Kinsella did it on their PC as a project over the weekend.
A faceless girl with a brown ponytail wearing a pink t-shirt and pink shoes and balancing on a yellow stool reaches up with a paintbrush to touch the title. The girl is about one tenth the size of the cover. The only thing you’d see if you passed it on the bookshelf is that lilac, the colour of the t-shirt you wear to yoga sometimes. But there’s a word-of-mouth sisterhood that keeps them circulating.
And yet. The book has a charming heroine, one you actually root for (Fixie Farr, called that because she loves to fix everything), a nice romance, a nice comeuppance moment for a loathed character, and it’s full of Kinsella’s trademark sense of humour. Of course, you probably already know Kinsella because of her Shopaholic series, eight books about scatty but lovable Becky Bloomwood, a secret genius who always manages to save the day even though she has a serious shopping addiction that no one in her family has ever suggested she seeks therapy for.
Becky marries Luke over the course of the books, save his business a few times, has several fights with him where he accuses her of buying too much, has a baby who, by age two, is already demanding things, has a best friend who also ends up pregnant and has three children by the time we’re on book three or four. The two women – perhaps in their mid-twenties through most of the series – settle quickly into lives of leisure: shopping, holidays, and so on.
Becky does go back to work, but there’s no urgency to her job unlike in the first book of the series, Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic, because her husband is rich, they can afford seven bedroom homes in the middle of London and year long five star holidays everywhere and so on and so forth. And yet, when I mention Shopaholic to people, their eyes get dreamy. There’s no talk of privilege or rich white people (crazy rich Brits?), there’s just genuine fondness for Becky and her hi jinks. (Oh Becky! Not another Prada bag you can’t afford! Tsk tsk!)
Why we love this genre
There’s no real world in most chick lit – no #MeToo or Trump or Brexit. That’s not the purpose it serves. It may as well be period literature for how it is read, a bubble of fortunate people doing fortunate things: falling in love, drinking, dancing, all while the world burns down around them. I can see why it works as a genre, to this day, I too am sucked in by the promise of a pretty (lilac) bubble. After spending the whole day on social media, Twitter and Facebook and people baying for each other’s blood, who wouldn’t like to slip into a perfect world?
Consider one of the biggest bestsellers of last year: The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory. Even Roxane Gay called it a “charming, warm, sexy gem of a novel.” And it’s chick lit. So’s To All The Boys I Loved Before, a YA coming-of-age novel turned into a sweet rom-com on Netflix. That’s all everyone wanted to talk about: the sweetness of it, watching two characters fall in love, putting on hold all the other burning things that are happening in this world.
(I do have to stop for a second here and talk about Marian Keyes, who has been called chick lit, but really subverts the genre by adding serious subjects: alcoholism, depression, abusive men, while at the same time keeping it light, without making the reader think she’s taking it lightly. It’s a great skill, but she is an exception to the books mentioned above.)
When will the women in these books not be stereotyped, though?
Then too, most chick lit heroines follow a template. They tend to be in jobs they can do easily (or give up once they get married), or are bored by. If they are passionate about their jobs, they’re passionate in a non-threatening way, talking about interpersonal relationships as a reason to love it or some such. If they are bosses, they are unfailingly nice to their subordinates.
They drink comforting things like tea or hot chocolate, very rarely coffee. They quickly become quite drunk on alcohol. They have a passion for a certain shoe, or item of clothing. A lot of it is not very empowered: women who are organised, not charming in that same scatty sort of way are usually the bitches of the book, and you know they’ll be horrible and be taken down by our heroines later.
Women, in short, usually come off as the enemy, just to use the Shopaholic books as an example: Becky is outed as an excessive spender by a female colleague of her husband, her female OBGYN almost sabotages her marriage, her best friend’s new mummy friend seems to want to steal the best friend away.
I am reading Shopaholic with a somewhat jaded eye though. This is not how the books are meant to be read. And they do suck you in faster than you think, you only surface for objections once you’re done.
I’d love to see some of them stray from the conventional everything-happens-in-a-bubble formula though. I’d like to see some of what makes our world a burning place to reflect in the novels, even if it is to say that the heroine finds a way to be optimistic after all. Meanwhile, they’re dreamy escapes, worlds where love happens and everything is solved with your man coming round to see you and telling you he finally knows you’re the one for him after all.
I Owe You One, Sophie Kinsella, Bantam Books.