Chick lit to chew on

Sep 17, 2003 at 12:00 am
Next time you go out late at night, look around and you'll see me. To the casual observer or passing acquaintance, I'm just another independent woman with a small and cheap but sharp apartment, an entertaining job that puts most of my education to work, and a decent — although not what anyone else would call challenging — social life. Most nights I feel somewhat satisfied and, more often than not, where I should be. If that makes me a thirtysomething target for Chick Lit, bring it.

Lucky for you I didn't have a wedding the weekend I was assigned to write about reading one memoir and three novels — all new releases from this summer — straight up, no chaser. After I slammed the four down and sat back for a cigarette, I admit a creeping sense of my own brilliance invaded my bedroom like smoke. Maybe I've got more figured out than I have to show for, because at the very least I can read 1,202 pages about women supposedly like me and walk away knowing my personal experiences, and those of my best girlfriends, tell the story of a single girl more accurately than anything I had just read.

I had thought Chick Lit would fill in the place of a busy girlfriend, the genre being a sort of two-way mirror with someone who knows you on the other side. The kind of skinny mirror that gently lets you know that wearing different shades of black together isn't as interesting as you think it is.

But the Chick Lit I read is chock-full of someone else's bloated Seventeen magazine girl-on-boy fantasies; fairy-tale situations of evil, rescue, and forever after; or the Carrie Bradshaw-types whispering over Champagne, "This world has nothing to do with you." And yes, the books also contain crank relationships that take too long to end, career ambitions and plateaus, concerns about the 30s that creep up before you've ever picked out and bought your very own new couch, bad boy/good guy deliberations, lunch after shopping, and wondering what exactly your parents did to you to make some things so fucking hard to wrap your head around. As comforting as those familiarities are, these four books all ended in a Sweet Valley High/Bridget Jones/old-romantic-comedy-with-Meg Ryan kind of way. Except for the memoir.

London gal Sylvia Smith's Appleby House (Anchor, September), a tight little memoir of dailiness, opens with her first look at the East London bedsit, shared-bathroom, all-women-renters living situation the book is named for. She's one of the few renters without a live-in boyfriend to split the rent, and devises a system for sharing the hot water (a system that isn't dirty at all, although it may sound that way). The book is Smith's tally of a year's worth of ordinary events — having a color-coded toilet paper rotation, being reminded that "Dallas" (the year is 1984) is on the telly because your neighbor refuses to keep the volume down, and comparing room, rent, and jobs with housemates — and it has a little something to say. Taking the path of least resistance in telling her story with single-syllable descriptions, and with the sure fact of her own unsentimental relationships, Smith allows the story to be, honestly, the single girl's life. The book closes quietly and makes you feel understood in the way City Paper's own Lulu Eightball does. And, quite frankly, making dinner by yourself most nights and grocery shopping on Saturdays has always been cool, in a That Girl kind of way.

But in Devil May Care (Atria, August) by Sheri McInnis, who could give a shit about Sally, the unsuccessful actress living in New York with her unsatisfying pony-tailed boyfriend when she falls in love with the devil? In case you didn't know, our tall, dark, and handsome/knight in shining armor/best lover ever/only man we ever felt truly loved us happens to be the fucking devil. Yeah, he fatally hurts the people who stand in his way, says he had never fallen in love before falling in love with us, and has exquisite taste. I expected some sort of irony here, but no, that man is Satan himself. As if cigarettes aren't bad enough, Sally must choose between all she has ever wanted for herself and Lucifer. Jesus, girls, it is not as fucking funny as it sounds. To quote one of the most empathetic and sane women on television, "Sex in the City's" Miranda Hobbes, "These are our choices?"

She gives birth — birth, I tell you — to and baptizes her perfectly agreeable spawn of Hades, and tries to rebuild her once artificially successful career. But near the end, she finally says hell no to the man with horns after he saves her life. The book is sprinkled with references to her alcoholic father, religious mother, and a felony (not hers) as though they were clues to the devil puzzle. Guess what? I wake up and go to bed every day in a damn puzzle, and I think at 33 I should be sleeping in a really comfortable one. I don't, but I sure as hell don't blame my childhood.

Because, darling, here comes Candace Bushnell (Sex in the City), the author who laid the foundation for a million ladies' brunches. Her new book is Trading Up (Hyperion, July), the latest installment about what women in New York whom I've never met do with their lives. The main character is Janey, a 33-year-old Victoria's Secret model (obviously a plea on Bushnell's own behalf to wish that could be; Stephanie Seymour doesn't even show up on the Pink — read "sale" — Pages anymore) with few morals, mile-high ambitions, and platinum tastes. She isn't sympathetic, and is barely interesting, but the story somehow seems to be. Interesting, I mean. In a cracked nutshell, Janey marries a millionaire for the stability, becomes rich as shit and fabulously famous, and falls in love. Good luck.

The truth: Trading Up was an intriguing read. Does settling romantically in order to get what you want materially (and by "materially," I mean lifestyle, living space, marriage, friends, lunch reservations, and comfort and safety levels) equal making a compromise that's doomed to failure? Lunch reservations? Who am I kidding? This book is all about the pain and the Champagne. And who out of my friends has ever said their name to get anything more than checked on the guest list at the Ottobar?

For its part, Cathleen Schine's She Is Me (Little Brown, September) begins with a believable enough plot: The academic Elizabeth lives in New York with her boyfriend and their 3-year-old son. Then her scholastic paper on the modern implications of Flaubert's Madame Bovary gets her hired to write a screenplay in Los Angeles, where her parents and dying-but-feisty grandmother live. She moves to L.A., her mother ends up with cancer and has an affair with Elizabeth's hot female director, and emotional chaos ensues. Elizabeth doesn't want to marry her boyfriend, but she does have an affair with her younger brother's best friend, love her son more than anything else, and watch her sick grandmother die. A lot stickier than even the devil plot, right?

But all She Is Me's stickiness morphs into honey-ranch dressing (sweet but strange-tasting) by the end, when Elizabeth finally marries the father of her son, her now-divorced parents dance with each other at the wedding reception, and everyone dances with the lesbian. Almost as believable as the idea that you and your lover would drive your grandmother home after Thanksgiving dinner, have sex on the beach, and arrive back home for seconds.

So is being a single thirtysomething as self-indulgent, stylish, and confusing as Chick Lit makes it sound? Lil' bit. So I might as well lust after those Blahniks. Although a night with a book isn't the worst way I have spent a Friday night--sorry, but is one really "the loneliest number"? — I'll have to think about that after my date on Thursday. Unless I'm too tired. Wendy Ward writes for City Paper, where the original version of this feature appeared. Send comments to [email protected]