Room for Improvement
by Stacey Ballis
The Latest Chick Lit Round-Up
A review by Suzanne D'Amato
You can spot a chick-lit book a mile away. Pastel cover? Check. Obligatory graphic of baby carriage, Christian Louboutin stiletto, engagement ring or all of the above? Check. Luckily, what you'll find between the covers of four of this season's best is something far less expected.
Designs on the Interior Life
When we first meet Lily Allen in Room for Improvement she's skedaddling out of a blind date's apartment after a so-so one-night stand. "I'm not usually such a slut," she says matter-of-factly before grabbing a cab home and falling into a deep, untroubled sleep.
This is a girl who writes her own rules. She's a size 12-14 who actually likes her body, saying, "I come off as plump, curvy and solid." She has plans for Saturday nights well into the next century. So what if her penchant for bed-hopping could teach Paris Hilton a thing or two? Author Stacey Ballis refuses to moralize over this -- or much of anything, for that matter -- and in the absence of any real soul-searching, Lily's carefree, independent attitude makes her remarkable. The title, accordingly, reads not as a comment on Lily herself (what's to improve?) but on her job: She's an interior designer on Swap/Meet, a new home-makeover-dating reality show. The book follows the show's first season, from the ditsy host and control-freak producer to the contestant about to see his bachelor pad go under the knife. Will the show get picked up for a second season? Will that hunky (if slightly cranky) carpenter turn out to be a nice guy after all? There's never much doubt, of course, but watching the giddy drama play out is more fun than a Trading Spaces marathon.
Unfortunately, the featherweight plot only underscores the author's fondness for overly clever turns of phrase. Note to Ballis: Alliteration is not the height of literary craft. There is only a limited number of times (say, zero?) that you can read sentences such as, "It's criminal the craft with which my cronies can give credence to any crumb of a possible crush, credible or no" before flinging this book in the pool. Still, Lily's spirited search for success and love on her own terms makes for a pleasurable read -- though its plucky protagonist's propensity for wordplay is likely to, well, perturb some people.
Peeling Away Pounds and Problems
In The Cinderella Pact, Sarah Strohmeyer gives us a heroine with an actual problem. Nola Devlin loves food: spiced, sauced, smothered, baked in a flaky pie crust. Nola, a frumpy, lonely editor at Sass! magazine, has eaten every last bite and has the queen-size pantyhose to prove it.
One day, her similarly heavy friends Nancy and Deb read a weight-loss column in Sass!, penned by a glamorous Brit named Belinda Apple. They decide to follow its advice and corral Nola into losing weight with them. This is a problem, not only because Nola doesn't believe she can slim down, but also because Nola is Belinda Apple. (A totally implausible but nonetheless amusing chain of events leads her to invent the columnist and assume a double life.) Because she and Belinda are one and the same, Nola knows the diet tips are bunk, but short of fessing up and facing sure dismissal from Sass!, she has to go along with her friends' plan.
To her own surprise, the pounds peel away. As they do, Nola learns many things she already sort of knew: that you should always be yourself; that a real Prince Charming will love you for who you are, not what you look like; and that "we are all Cinderellas, no matter what our size." Yep, it's pretty cheesy, but Strohmeyer has a sly, sarcastic sense of humor that makes the alter-ego concept (almost) believable; the moments when Nola must turn on a dime and switch into Belinda mode are laugh-out-loud funny.
Choosing to Be Childless
Baby Proof, by contrast, is focused on very serious matters. "After all, what kind of woman doesn't want to be a mother?" wonders Claudia Parr in Emily Giffin's novel. The answer: her kind. Claudia has a terrific job (in true Bridget Jones tradition, she's an editor at a publishing house), a fabulous apartment and all the other trappings of the good life, New York-style.
But she doesn't want kids, and, among her family and friends, this makes her something of a pariah. They're steadfast proponents of the baby-buggy lifestyle (though neither of her sisters seems particularly happy -- one's saddled with three kids and a philandering husband; the other is childless and obsessed with fertility monitors and ovulation charts). Still, the fact that everyone's got babies on the brain is not a major problem until "everyone" includes Claudia's husband, Ben, who suddenly wants a child or else. The couple decides to call it quits. And then things get interesting.
In many ways, Giffin, the bestselling author of Something Borrowed and Something Blue, has written a book more thought-provoking than it is engaging: The story's singular focus means it can get a little dull. But as a meditation on our culture's focus on parenthood and family, it works. In Ben and Claudia's world, a child exists mostly as an extension of self -- a possession not unlike a pair of Manolos or a cottage in Lake Como. "And there's no way to temporarily own a child, is there?" Claudia's best friend not so insightfully puts it.
What kind of woman doesn't want to be a mother? The book's answer: many kinds, and they're not bad people. But what kind of parent does a woman cattle-prodded into motherhood make? We never get the opportunity to ask.
Enigmas and Eccentricities Abounding
In Liane Moriarty's The Last Anniversary, Sophie Honeywell is a 39-year-old human resources director asking herself all kinds of questions. She's wondering why she's not married yet. She's lamenting the One Who Got Away. Then her world takes a turn for the wondrous: Her ex-boyfriend's aunt dies and, somewhat inexplicably, leaves Sophie a house on Scribbly Gum Island, off the coast of Sydney, Australia. Sophie decides to move there, leaving her romantic blunders behind for what she hopes will be a life less ordinary. Where her journey takes her is not to an enchanted Neverland but to an even stranger place -- real life, of the decidedly non-chick-lit variety. The island's denizens include Grace, a beautiful woman whose postpartum depression leads her to fantasize about killing herself and harming her child. Then there's Rose, a seemingly absent-minded aunt still recovering from the assault she experienced as a teenager.
As Sophie gets embroiled in a mystery -- an abandoned baby, a family brimming with painful secrets -- her own concerns become largely a thing of memory. It's riveting stuff, if surprisingly sad at times. Moriarty seems determined to deny readers the easy pleasures of the basic beach read. In this case, that's a very good thing.
Perhaps that's why the book's fluffy moments and "you go, girl" tagline ("Sometimes you have to come up with your own fairy-tale ending") seem more evocative of the romance novels Sophie has to rationalize reading than something of this caliber. "It's silly to be ashamed of her choice of reading material, [Sophie realizes]. After all, these books are often extremely well written . . . witty and clever." She could be talking about The Last Anniversary itself.Suzanne D'Amato is deputy editor of The Washington Post's Sunday Source.
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