A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Let’s get something straight right away. This is not a minor spending problem. This is not one of those cutesy-pie fictional heroines who simply must have those bone-wracking, toe-crushing, stupidly expensive shoes because she’s a girl and it’s in our DNA, just like eating chocolate and wanting babies and emoting at the television and loathing ourselves the moment our weight creeps over [unrealistic number which would be healthy for very few of us].* No, this is something of an entirely different calibre.
When we meet Becky Bloomwood in the first novel of the series, Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic (2000), she is working in a boring job as a junior sort of finance journalist and spending beyond her means. Becky, who doesn’t have much in the way of impulse control, seems like a well-meaning sort. She wants to curb her spending, but she can’t quite manage it, and finally—after a series of dramatic events and daft decisions—ends up at a solution, acquiring a rather spiffy alpha-maleish boyfriend in the process. Happy ever after, you say? Not quite.
In the course of five more novels, Becky—enabled by her long-suffering best friend, indulgent parents and still alpha-maleish, but equally indulgent partner—repeatedly runs up massive personal debt, tells extravagant lies, spends other people’s money like water, damages friendships and imperils careers. Over and over, she exerts herself constructing massive, tortured schemes to extract herself from some hellpit of her own making and redeem herself in the eyes of those close to her; who forgive her, of course, because Becky is apparently that special. Becky judges everyone by their clothing; she thinks an expensive wedding is a life-changing thing worth throwing your parents over for, or at least seriously contemplating it; she leans hard on the various well-meaning people around her who are, for some reason, invested in helping her out; she meets every setback with an elaborately constructed fantasy scenario starring herself. During the financial crisis, her priority is to throw a really, really big party. In short, Becky Bloomwood is the overpampered child of the consumerist society. She is not what I, being what Becky would term a “worthy lentil” sort of person, would call a good role model for the women of today.
And that’s just fine with me, because here’s the thing: I don’t look for role models in any book that has shopping bags on the cover. Why on earth would I? The attraction of books like this is the lure of something really good and frivolous; in fact, the more alien the values, the better. There are times that I want something really involving, where I can identify with the characters, and that’s when I’ll reach for a Rosy Thornton or a Lucy Dillon; those are for the grown-up days when I can countenance the prospect of sobbing into my tea because the one lovely character died and the other might not go to University. But for the days when I need a fix of something sharp and glossy, it’s Sophie Kinsella all the way.
Well, I say that with qualifications. I got off to a bad start with Kinsella’s books, because the first one I picked up was the stand-alone novel Can You Keep a Secret?, in which the weedy but basically harmless protagonist Emma Corrigan has to undergo all sorts of humiliating trials in the name of improving herself and having a shot at love with yet another alpha-maleish capitalist. I’m still not fond of certain of her novels because of the degree of self-abasement and embarrassment inflicted on the poor heroine in the name of happy ever after; St. Ignatius could learn a thing or two about the narrow gate from Twenties Girl or The Undomestic Goddess. But the Shopaholic books, like Kinsella’s early novels as Madeleine Wickham (now re-released and a reviewing favourite of Bookfox Anne), are something quite different; a difference which says a great deal about Kinsella’s shrewdness and skill as a commercial author. What makes the Shopaholic series so enjoyable, for me, is the broad streak of humour underlying Becky’s naive and sometimes, frankly, irritating narration of events. That I don’t personally much like Becky doesn’t matter; she is an unreliable narrator, and a very well-crafted one.
Chicklit books, and especially those with shopping bags on the cover, are often referred to as trash. Well, there’s no trash like good trash; as Becky herself would tell you, frivolous doesn’t always mean cheap. If what you’re after is a real piece of mindless entertainment, something that reads easily (which inevitably means it’s insanely hard to write), the Shopaholic books are definitely to be recommended.
The latest installment, Mini Shopaholic, was published in 2010 by The Dial Press. ISBN: 0385342047. All the Shopaholic books are available in digital format.
* Judging by the numbers which apparently plague the lives of many fictional characters, from Tory Maxwell through Bridget Jones and Polly McLaren, they must all be incredibly short.