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Review-a-Day
Powells.com
Monday, October 8th, 2001


 

Shopgirl

by Steve Martin

A review by Georgie Lewis

When Steve Martin's Shopgirl came out in hardcover, it was praised wildly by the critics. Graceful and precise at 130 pages, this novella is now out in paperback and deserves revisiting if only to heap even more adoring praise upon it.

Shopgirl is a succinct portrayal of the fragility of relationships and a witty look at how men and women communicate — or at least think they communicate when, in fact, they miss nearly everything.

Mirabelle believes he has told her he is bordering on falling in love with her, and Ray believes she understands that he isn't going to be anybody's boyfriend. What neither of them understands is that these conversations are meaningless to the sayer and they are meaningless to the hearer. The sayer believes they are heard, and the hearer believes they are never said.

Mirabelle is a twenty seven-year-old art school graduate who has spent the last two years of her life working behind the glove counter at Neiman Marcus. She medicates herself for depression, although "she can, when the occasion calls, become a wisecracker and buoyant party girl." She wants to be loved and for a while accepts a halfhearted liaison with the hapless and immature Jeremy. When Ray Porter, a fifty-year-old, divorced millionaire, asks Mirabelle out to dinner she begins seeing him out of an attraction arising from flattery, physical desire and elements of loneliness and need. Martin beautifully evokes the confusion and miscommunication so frequently experienced in affairs of the heart.

Martin's third person narrator steps in to point out the central characters' self-delusions and potential areas of growth. On Ray: "If he thinks he would harm Mirabelle he would back away. But he does not yet understand when and how people are hurt. He doesn't understand the subtleties of slights and pains, that it is not the big events that hurt the most but rather the smallest questionable shift in tone at the end of a spoken word that can plow most deeply into the heart." Self-destructive impulses are forewarned yet the reader is reassured that these habits are not set in stone, and that some of the characters will remedy these, even if it is sometime in the future not covered by this novella.

Knowing that Steve Martin has frequently been involved with much younger women in the past makes Shopgirl feel partly autobiographical (his familiarity with the lives of the impossibly rich is undeniable, at least). But you get the idea he has done a lot of thinking (and perhaps some constructive therapy) in recent years. Readers should be grateful to have such an elegant and insightful guide to the human heart. That it is wrapped in such a tender and enchanting story makes it all the more valuable.


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