What a sad and desolate place we're in, that misty never-never land between the time "Bridget Jones' Diary" became a smash hit and that future moment when publishers finally realize that the public just won't tolerate yet another first-person novelty novel about a single woman's love life. Into the sodden breach leaps Anouchka Grose Forrester's "Ringing for You," the latest arrival at the hen party.
Forrester's novel -- subtitled "A Love Story With Interruptions" -- is really just the incessant prattling of a young woman who's taken a job as a temporary receptionist at the Academy of Material Science in London. (We never learn her name.) She makes it clear she's far too educated for the job: She did her master's thesis on "the History of Punishment: From Ancient Greece to the Victorian Era" -- quirky, isn't it? She's decided to write this "novel" -- it's really just a glorified diary -- in between the many interruptions she has to field on the job. Forrester has come up with a cute gimmick, inserting symbols into the text to indicate each intrusion of real life: a little telephone for every time the narrator has to take a call, a hand with a pen for every time she has to sign for a package. These quaint dingbats punctuate a narrative that's mostly just drivel about the receptionist's infatuation with a scary, sexy bike messenger-cum-artist.
Now and then she takes a breather from her relentless, deadeningly self-absorbed dribblings to describe some of the eccentric characters who work in her office, or to reflect on her relationship with her ho-hum nice-guy live-in boyfriend. Sometimes "Ringing for You" nicely captures the pettiness of office politics -- the way even the annoying people you work with can grow on you in unexpected ways. She befriends one of her shyest office-mates, a scientist named Philip Scroll, and her description of their lunch together has a gentle, sweet-spirited wit.
But Forrester's powers of observation wither when her narrator starts rabbiting on about the "Man Who Mustn't Be Mentioned" (the bike-messenger, who has forbidden her to include him in her scribblings) -- and unfortunately, those noodlings take up nearly the whole book. When Forrester's narrator isn't hating the "MWMM" for being a jerk or pining away for him to call, she's pondering the inner workings of her own mind, and typically they go like this:
I've got this desperate urge to tell you the truth right now but I can't seem to work out what it is. I'm aware that if you only do it halfway you sound like a women's magazine writer. That's what a lot of this is like, isn't it? I wonder why it's so easy to be glib, and so hard not to be. Nobody really wants to be glib, do they? But most of us are most of the time. Anything else is just so difficult.
Forrester apparently finds that particular "anything else" as difficult as her narrator does, which is why "Ringing for You" doesn't amount to anything more than a flavor-of-the-month novel. With any luck, the day is coming when the reading public starts turning away the Bridget Jones wannabes as if they were the last undesirables left in a box of chocolates. "Ringing for You" is as good a place as any to start.