Vulpes Libris

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.

Easy Excess: the Shopaholic series by Sophie Kinsella

Becky Bloomwood has a spending problem.

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.

9 comments on “Easy Excess: the Shopaholic series by Sophie Kinsella

  1. Hilary
    February 1, 2012

    Great review, Kirsty, thank you! Thanks to Anne, mainly, I’ve recently read and enjoyed several Sophie Kinsella titles (mostly in Madeleine Wickham guise). Most lately, exhausted by my newfound freedom to do too many things at once, I recovered by taking a day out and devouring ‘Remember Me?’ at a sitting. I found it very enjoyable, and I agree, it has that extra something that keeps me wanting to know what happens to this not frightfully deserving heroine – but in this case, as with some of Madeleine Wickham’s, there is a sense of redemption and growth that keeps me reading. It may just be running the whole gamut from A to B on the scale of becoming a better person, but it is a plus point. Maybe, somehow, I’m led to think that it’s OK that she ends up with the right alpha-male-ish hero, who’s always got something going for him that keeps him too just on the right side of frisbying the book at the skirting board. And therein lies some of the enjoyment, I feel – it’s a piquant tightrope for this reader to walk, and I don’t dislike that at all. And they’re the sort of funny books that suit my sense of humour too.

    I’ve been put off the Shopaholics rather by the title, and the total aversion I have to shopping myself – but now, why not? I’ll give them a try, and find out if the same things keep me reading and enjoying them.

  2. Anne Brooke
    February 1, 2012

    I’m with Hilary on this one – I’m tempted but oh the utter HORRORS of shopping, arrgghh! You may have persuaded me to go for it though, Kirsty, so I might just grab one when I’m near a shelf somewhere 🙂

    Anne
    xxx

  3. kirstyjane
    February 1, 2012

    Thank you very much comrades for your comments. I also hate the shopping process with a fiery passion, unless it’s for books. This series is definitely “how the other half live” for me — not to mention the sheer amount of money the protagonist drops on a regular basis! Blimey!

  4. Jackie
    February 2, 2012

    I think I read one of the early Shopaholic books & it evidently didn’t leave much of an impression on me, but I’ve been thinking of giving them another try. The hyper-feminine activities of the character is so totally unfamiliar to me that it’s like visiting another culture. Put her in a book store and than i could understand the shopping frenzy. But I don’t share the lust for shoes that so many of my fellow females are supposed to do.
    But “Twenties Girl” is another story. I thought that was excellent; funny, touching & almost magical.

    P.S. There are other ereaders besides Kindles out there, you know!

  5. kirstyjane
    February 2, 2012

    I know, comrade J, but I could only find them for Kindle — I might have been searching in the wrong places!

    Hyper-feminine is a really good word for Becky, although it’s a very specific and (oh Lord, I hope) transitory costruction of femininity, all this shoes and shopping bunk.

  6. rosyb
    February 2, 2012

    I’m afraid I’m with Jackie. Leena was convinced I would really enjoy this but I didn’t at all. The humour is too clutzy and cute for me and perhaps I just have no conception of anyone who wants that many shoes. Or ever wants to shop for shoes. Shopping for shoes has to be up there as one of the most hellish experiences ever. I do not have the handbag or shoes gene at all. I suppose i like my humour a little more…acid. I do see the satire in Bridget Jones and thought it was very clever – although it was muted a lot by the films.

    But fair does – these Shopaholic books have been hugely successful so must speak to a lot of people so I am happy to hold up hands and admit I’m the odd one, and many of the bookfoxes seem to enjoy Kinsella in her other name – would I enjoy those more do you think? Do the two pen-names have a different style would you say?

    The thing is that you say that the character is a financial journalist but doesn’t she end up working in fashion in some way or other in the normal way? I just immediately switch off when they end up working in fashion for some reason. 🙂

  7. kirstyjane
    February 2, 2012

    Yes, she is at the start, but I don’t want to get into spoilers. 😉

    Well, I lack the shopping gene too. Humour is just one of those very subjective things, and for me it’s just funny enough to keep reading. For others the cringe factor might outweigh that.

    I don’t know what you would make of the Wickham books — why not try one? Maybe start with The Wedding Girl, but don’t blame me if you hate it, eh? 🙂

  8. Lisa
    February 3, 2012

    I’ve not read any Kinsella but I did see the Shopaholic film and quite enjoyed it. I definitely relate to the being skint but wanting things displayed glitzily in shop windows. Not that I buy them. But at times I definitely feel the pull towards shallow consumerism (I blame working in a department store for 4 years). Windowshopaholic, that would be me. I enjoyed this review, Kirsty. I did wonder how a Marxist would feel about a book called “Shopaholic” (!) but it was a nicely balanced review.

  9. kirstyjane
    February 3, 2012

    I think if you enjoyed the film you will probably like the books even better — the humour is that much more biting. There’s a lot of good observational stuff in there, and one does see Becky come into contact with people who have quite a different set of values (and totally fail to get it).

    Windowshopaholic, yes, I can identify. I like looking at the pretty stuff but the trying-on process is hell, and like hell could I spend thousands on something I might spill red wine down within five minutes of putting it on, even if I had thousands to spend. And I can’t be arsed with stuff that’s right on trend now and will look stupid next year (well, often it already does)…

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