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Thursday, July 15th, 2004


Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination

by Helen Fielding

Spy Girl

A review by Sacha Zimmerman

I have a strong visceral reaction to chick lit. When I see titles like Bergdorf Blondes and The Devil Wears Prada (don't even get me started on anything by Candace Bushnell), I can't help but be revolted by their reinforcement of vacuous gender stereotypes. If you aren't a thin, attractive label whore working in fashion, p.r., or magazines, you may as well not exist as far as these books are concerned. I'm not saying the antidote is to rush right out and buy some Virginia Woolf, but do pulpy chick books really have to be so shallow? I mean, I love designer clothes, shopping, dashing men, apple martinis, the — ahem — magazine industry, and shoes as much as the next gal, but I don't need novels and TV shows devoted to them. As long as chick lit is short on plot and nuance, I'd rather just go buy a pair of shoes, down an apple martini, flirt with a dude, and call it a day than read about wealthy anorexic girls doing the same thing. Give me a good international thriller any time over that tripe.

Well, in Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination, Helen Fielding does — much to my pleasant surprise. By the end of the novel, I had come to love the heroine so much that I wanted to reread the early chapters in case my cynicism had prevented me from fully appreciating them. See, it starts out just as I had feared: Olivia Joules is a highly attractive woman who carries around this season's Marc Jacobs bag and freelances for London's Elan magazine writing about style. But this apparently shallow beginning very quickly turns sublimely absurd and remains hysterical until the end. By page 20, Olivia is convinced that the man she has been flirting with is Osama bin Laden. And, since she dreams of becoming a serious foreign correspondent — as so many style-section reporters do — Olivia embarks on a hilarious adventure to get the big story and, while she's at it, save the world.

Making terrorism funny is no small feat, especially these days. But Fielding's plot is so rollicking you can't help but enjoy the ride. After meeting Pierre Feramo, a Dodi al-Fayed-esque playboy, at a face-cream launch party in Miami, and attending a private party he throws the next evening (a situation that required "a look which was attractive, but not so tarty as to offend any possible Muslim sensibility — tricky"), Olivia narrowly avoids a terrorist attack on a luxury apartment boat that Feramo had asked her not to visit. Between this and his languid eyes, she — naturally — concludes that Feramo is bin Laden. (This leads to a beautiful moment with her friend, who upon hearing Olivia's thoughts about Feramo says, "How drunk are you exactly?") Olivia, still unsure if she has a crush on Feramo or if he's bin Laden, follows him to Los Angeles under the pretense of writing a story about struggling actresses — a couple of whom, Demi and Kimberley, seem to be rather taken with Feramo. Olivia soon becomes convinced that Feramo is a member of an arm of Al Qaeda called Takfiri, in which Islamist fundamentalists drink, smoke, and womanize to disguise their true intentions toward and loathing for Western culture. When she discovers her room has been bugged, she buys an assortment of spy gear and really gets down to business — starting with a date with Feramo full of alcohol and political innuendo, where she coyly tries to draw out his inner jihadist: "'I'd love to go to the Himalayas, Tibet, Bhutan' — don't hesitate — 'Afghanistan. Those places seem so untouched and mysterious. Have you ever been up there?'" Then she spies on Feramo at his scuba-diving hotel on an island in Honduras, leading to a fabulous scene where she is holding up her spy-glass trying to peer through a fence wearing only her underwear when she is caught by a hunky mystery man who, it is ultimately revealed, is a CIA operative. She also won't eat any meat on the island because she suspects the goats are eating ricin plants.

What's brilliant about the novel is that Fielding allows you to believe for a while that Olivia may be insane. When that idea is turned on its head and Feramo actually appears to be an international terrorist, the plot gets even funnier. Olivia is approached by Britain's MI6 representative, Absalom Widgett, and the hunky CIA mystery man, and soon enough she is an agent of Her Majesty's royal government. Her mission is to track down Feramo in Sudan and find out which cities are the targets for the explosives that he has been stockpiling in surfboards back in Honduras. She is given a padded bra full of useful weapons and spy gadgets, but is appalled to learn that the hair-dryer/nerve-agent dispenser won't actually dry her hair. "Surely on such an expedition one would normally manage without a hair dryer?" Widgett asks. "Well, yes," Olivia replies, "but not if I'm supposed to be seducing the head of an al-Qaeda cell."

But, after stunning success in Sudan, Olivia discovers that Feramo — who is killed in the Red Sea — was heading up another terrorist cell and that this one is still active. Fielding creates a very Western Al Qaeda cell that is peopled by Feramo's American "recruits," Hollywood wannabes who think he's a producer. No one would ever think the beautiful starlet Kimberley was working with terrorists; hell, even she doesn't think she is. Feramo's daft Hollywood sidekicks become the unwitting pawns of Al Qaeda. A final showdown occurs at the Academy Awards — the Oscars are stuffed with explosives! — which ends up being a wickedly funny send-up of Hollywood.

Fielding has served up a delicious satire of our worst fears and prejudices in a post-September 11 world — as we all know, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't really out to get you. But, in addition to satire, Fielding still delivers on the thriller in this wry and engaging book. This is not the vapid chick lit of romance- and shopping-obsessed "Sex and the City" fans. This is adventure and political comedy with a feminine twist. I just wish Olivia Joules, foreign correspondent/secret agent, were here to save the day.

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