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“Slingbacks & Arrows: Chick Lit Comes of Age”

So, I have an article in the summer issue of Bitch magazine. It’s about the evolution of chick lit, and, in it, I offer a comparative review of Bergdorf Blondes by Plum Sykes and The Anxiety of Everyday Objects by Aurelie Sheehan.

You’ll find a couple of excerpts from the article in the continuation of this post, but, if you want to read the whole thing, you have to buy Bitch. Better yet, subscribe: with your subscription, you’ll get $10 off Lunapads!

On Bergdorf Blondes

Bergdorf Blondes by Plum Sykes[T]he central role of consumption—whether of Cosmopolitans or Jimmy Choos—is one of chick lit’s more pathological features. Love becomes just another commodity, more or less indistinguishable from a Lulu Guinness handbag. The tendency of chick-lit authors to assign the same narrative weight to such disparate and disproportionate phenomena as peep-toe pumps and marriage makes reading their stories as confounding as flipping through women’s magazines with their unsettling mix of relationship advice, fashion photography, and beauty advertorials.

An author seeking to build a better chick lit might decide to jettison the material goods in favor of real substance. Another author, however, might cry out, “But what about that Lulu Guinness handbag?” Plum Sykes, a contributing editor at Vogue, is the latter. If most chick lit is uncomfortably close to Glamour in content, Sykes’s debut novel is a Madison Avenue shopping spree in narrative form. Bergdorf Blondes delivers material pleasures in abundance without any confusing, contradictory, or distracting pretensions to meaning or art.

While Sykes borrows the basic shape of chick lit—the story concludes with the happy union of female protagonist and Prince Charming, but only after much slapstick and many failed amours—her novel is only barely about the love of a woman for a man. It is, fundamentally, a story about the love of a woman for Chloé jeans. And Bellinis. And oxygen facials. And private jets. In Bergdorf Blondes, the frills that typically adorn chick lit become the novel’s raison d’etre. The cover says it all, really: it’s set up like a board game, and the winner gets a big, pink Harry Winston engagement ring. There’s never any question whether the true object is marital bliss or the fat rock. Sure, a man is nice, but he’s just the means to an end or, at best, a cute accessory. In fact, the novel’s heroine, known only as “Moi,” sets out to find a PH—that’s “prospective husband”—when she realizes that being engaged does wonders for a girl’s complexion. A fiancé, it seems, is better than Botox.

Bergdorf Blondes isn’t just chick lit. It’s meta-chick lit, and the genre’s most objectionable traits are present in extravagant quantities in this novel. If chick lit’s obsession with high-end ephemera is one of its less laudable characteristics, what’s one to make of this catalog of vanities? Consider, for example Moi’s suicide attempt. After having a last meal of room-service mimosas and foie gras, she prepares a will in which she itemizes her clothes by designer and leaves her mother an appointment with a très exclusive hairdresser, and she writes a suicide note in which she compares a broken heart to “the humiliation of never being able to get a good table at Da Silvano again.” Then Moi turns her attention to truly important matters: her final outfit. She decides on a Paris Ritz bathrobe and rhinestone-encrusted Manolo Blahniks. As an earnest depiction of a contemporary young woman’s life, this is horrifying. But, thankfully, there’s nothing earnest about this novel, and, as satire, it’s pretty funny.

On The Anxiety of Everyday Objects

The Anxiety of Everyday Objects by Aurelie Sheehan

Winona is a filmmaker. She’s also the secretary at a law office, and she spends most of the novel figuring out which is the real—the most meaningful and rewarding—identity. Most of her tasks are routine and mindless, which leaves her plenty of time to compose movies in her head. And, as a secretary, she’s making substantially more money than she ever made as a waitress or “the assistant to the assistant at the bookstore.” But when an inspiring new female boss comes onto the scene, our heroine gets a raise and a promotion, and quickly becomes fully invested in a job that was only supposed to be a not-unpleasant way to pay the bills.

When Sheehan talks about clothes in her novel, it’s not to celebrate the bubbly fun of being a girl, it’s to reveal something important about her heroine. At the beginning of the novel, Winona’s workplace look is a disguise. It puts some physical and cognitive distance between her self and her job. As Winona begins to internalize her job, though, she starts to mimic her new boss’s elegant, businesslike style, and Sheehan offers a shrewd analysis of the relationship between appearance and personality. Winona’s cheekily prim dresses, itchy nylons, and fashionable but office-sensible shoes were secretary drag; her steel-gray silk scarf, on the other hand, is not ironic camouflage, but a corporate uniform. Winona herself is not unaware of the transformation and its significance. Before she decides to spend half an unexpected bonus on new clothes, she wonders, “Should artists covet silk pantsuits from places like Bonwit Teller?”

Sheehan does a good job of depicting the allure of professional success. She also understands the pleasures of a job well done, even when the job is only dubiously worth doing. To take satisfaction in one’s work, to find fulfillment, even: that’s the career ideal. But when the self and the job aren’t well-aligned, the pleasures of work can become a trap—one that’s difficult to avoid because work is difficult to avoid. Thus, when Winona finally leaves her position at the law office, she doesn’t leave to pursue her art full time; she leaves planning to look for work that’s less emotionally demanding, less potentially seductive—as the story draws to a close, she’s contemplating a job in a coffee shop.

July 29, 2004 | Permalink

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