Beyond Bridget Jones

These four new novels by and about women (and one not-so-new one) may be riding the chick-lit publishing craze. But they're also good enough to bust that dismissive genre label wide open.

By Barbara O'Dair
Published August 12, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

Is there a bigger buzz-kill in chick lit than babies? I mean, mewling infants, soiled diapers, endless nights at home: Miranda was never the same again. Nevertheless, motherhood is an endless source of fascination and provocation in a new crop of women-driven books, several of which might qualify as chick lit simply for their vivid depictions of privileged lives, story lines that combine finding oneself with getting the guy, and characters that aren't asked to do much in the way of introspection. Even the insular ladies of these titles are outer-directed; in this, they provide enough action to satisfy the most intense need for feminine theatrics. At their best they do what so-called chick lit can do: open a window onto women's lives and propel uniquely female concerns to center stage.

In these titles, we get glimpses of a posh set of Greenwich-style grandmothers, narcissistic neuroscientists, a professional woman with two husbands, and the mother of a teenage monster who holds herself (and is held) partially responsible for his horrific acts. The getting, having and grappling with children might end up making chick lit, as it is narrowly defined, defunct. It might also push out the boundaries of the category, which, despite its brash and dismissive appellation (see also "chick flick"), could grow to include new and interesting material such as found in the following works. Wouldn't that be ironic: If the fluffiest of current genres spawned the latest in Big Ideas?

"Our Kind: A Novel in Stories"
By Kate Walbert
208 pages
Simon & Schuster
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Before we get carried away, Kate Walbert's third book would never be mistaken for chick lit in any world, though "Our Kind" is a literary hen party of sorts. Her "novel in stories" twines together select tales from the lives of a group of older women, with names like Canoe, Bambi, Viv and Esther, in gorgeous but taut lyrical prose. While Woolfian in spirit (the author deliberately drops a few references to Virginia Woolf throughout), the book's sharp, canny social observations are rather more Austenian. But though her characters are finely drawn, they are hard to distinguish from each other by design, as they're ingeniously referred to in the first person plural throughout: "We laughed; we couldn't help it"; "Some of us bit our fingernails."

It's a device that's both inclusive and exclusive. Walbert's vision is that these upper-crust Connecticut ladies are of a piece, a type, a "kind," one or two of whom may have attended Smith or Mount Holyoke yet ultimately dropped academia for marriage. They've stuck together as adults through childbearing and divorce, martinis and cigarettes, country club memberships, and vacations but never known much about each other's inner lives. She beautifully limns their world: "We were once rich, or close enough. Our husbands had good jobs, buying and selling. We left them some years ago in a thundering of hooves, our long faces uncompromised by apology. They would remarry, mostly, younger girls or women not our type. We couldn't have cared less. We kept the house and the pool, occasionally a court. We drew together."

They're bored, so bored they don't even think to ask, Is this all there is? But children begin to fill a void, for a little while. "After their conceptions we've felt our world expanding, bursting out of its previous condition ... With babies we feel oddly contained, rightfully nailed into form. No longer loose boards, a leaky vessel listing in the doldrums with a wildly spinning compass, we head straight into the wind, sails unfurled and bleached white as the diapers soaking in our bathtubs. If nothing else they give us something to do."

"No Ordinary Matter"
By Jenny McPhee
272 pages
Free Press
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Jenny McPhee's modern young women are not caught in the same dilemma, yet they, too, struggle to find their footing with or without men or children. In "No Ordinary Matter," two sisters, Lillian, a beautiful neurosurgeon, and Veronica, a soap opera and musical comedy writer, hire a private investigator to probe the circumstances of their father's death 25 years earlier, ultimately unearthing startling family facts. Along the way, a series of coincidences occur: For one, Alex Drake, the handsome new actor on Veronica's show, has unknowingly impregnated Lillian in a one-night stand, which Lillian orchestrated to conceive a child.

Supposedly random occurrences such as this one are McPhee's specialty, and she layers her plot lines with scientific inquiry, often pitting the factual world against the more malleable constructs of psychology and choice. Of Lillian for instance, McPhee writes, "Abandonment, jealousy, anger, and resentment were all feelings she usually absorbed and deflected with the ease and precision of a superconducting magnet."

The sisters meet regularly at a pastry shop, each one often dressed to the nines and spouting breezy repartee that passes for sisterly confidences. "When she had told Lillian about the breakup, her sister had said very little more than 'Perhaps there is a God.' 'Should I call him?' Veronica had asked. 'Cold turkey, it's the only way' ... 'I think we have to stop meeting in this place,' Lillian said. 'I mean, the art is just so consistently bad, I'm reduced to reassessing your ex-boyfriend's talent.'"

The novel's angle on parenthood is complex -- the ending truly illustrates this point, but there are plenty of other examples. Their mother is absentee, off raising farm animals in New Zealand, their father's death is shrouded in mystery, and Lillian eschews partnership in raising a child. "A few months earlier Lillian had announced to Veronica that she had decided to have a baby. She was thirty-five ... there was no man she was particularly interested in and certainly no one she wanted to share the experience with ... She would just have to rely on Margaret Mead's dictum: Fatherhood was a social invention."

For McPhee, it would seem, the world is a fascinating machine with intricate parts that somehow fit together: Broadway, television, brain chemistry, academia, motherhood, family, feminism, beauty, jealousy, love, sex and work -- and that's what she models her novel on. It's a heady mix, and an ambitious undertaking. She has wit and patience with her sometimes exasperating characters, and a demonstrated skill as ringmaster to her intricate plot circles and the ideas that make them swirl.

"What to Keep"
By Rachel Cline
304 pages
Random House
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Rachel Cline's "What to Keep" is another novel about parental neglect and a daughter coming to terms with her own responsibilities to herself and others, an appraisal, naturally, that includes her own version of motherhood. The book is divided into thirds, taking place when the narrator is 12, 26 and 36. Denny Roman is a precocious, lonely girl whose neuroscientist parents, Charles and Lily, are distant and preoccupied: "No one identifies their six-year-old girl's willfulness as 'passion' but Charles and Lily did recognize in Denny an emotional immediacy that was genuine, relentless and entirely new to both of them."

When Lily has a car accident on the day of Denny's debut as an actress in a middle-school play, Lily wanders their town, a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, in a muddle, forgetting her engagements and even her identity. "The thing that Lily has never been able to see around the sides of is being a mother. Even while working sixty hours a week, even when Denny was asleep, even when she and Denny were always together and their relationship made perfect sense to her, the role of mother did not. Even more than a doctor, even more than a wife, a mother is an 'other,' whose existence always seems incomplete -- and maybe that's why, in Lily's state of burgeoning concussion, it is the first thing she lets go."

Cline's eminently readable, tender tale mixes empathy and quiet humor, adolescent yearning and adult understanding. Returning to Ohio from Los Angeles to clean out her room as her mother prepares to move to New York for a research job, Denny expects revelation. "As they pull into the driveway, Denny waits for the feeling of home to wash over her. As she opens the car door, she draws a deep breath of the still, hot air. She smells lawn cuttings, dying barbecues, exhaust. Nothing happens. The way the eleventh stair creaks doesn't do it, either. Nor does the smell of the freshly laundered pillowcase on her childhood bed. No wonder she is not a Method actor."

In the last section, when Denny has relocated to Manhattan herself and taken up playwriting, this wry 36-year-old has the opportunity to become a mother, via the potential adoption of the 12-year-old African-American son of her recently deceased friend. That a kind of Prince Charming (a blue-eyed former Brat Packer turned director) appears in the final scene is a testament to the power of chick lit, though the fact that he's a divorced father with his own adolescent to contend with assures us that another story is just beginning.

"We Need to Talk About Kevin"
By Lionel Shriver
416 pages
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Then there's the mother of all recent above-chick-lit novels, last year's "We Need to Talk About Kevin," by Lionel Shriver, just released in paperback. Eva Khatchadourian's son is the teenage killer -- by crossbow -- of seven students, a teacher and a janitor in his high school. Deep maternal ambivalence predated Kevin's conception and continued throughout his childhood. "What possessed us? We were so happy! Why, then, did we take the stake of all we had and place it all on this outrageous gamble of having a child?"

This story is the most extreme, of course, in this lot of over-the-top plots. Of course, Shriver could have illustrated the fear of motherhood without resorting to the Columbine reference. But what this conceit does is allow the author to explore her topic to its core, as she has created as unsympathetic a portrait as possible of the boy -- and his mother, the former travel company owner and Manhattan-dwelling sophisticate, whose sharp clothes and smart dinner parties and monthly treks to one continent or another have been curtailed by the care and feeding of her firstborn.

The epistolary method Shriver uses, letters to Eva's absent husband, strains belief, yet ultimately that's not what trips us up. It's Eva's relentless negativity that becomes boring and repetitive in the first half of the book, the endless recounting of her loss of svelteness, her loss of freedom. What was hailed as feminist comes across as vain and selfish -- yes, that's right, the very hallmarks of chickdom. Could Eva Khatchadourian be chick lit's very own patron saint? During her pregnancy, Eva racked her brain "for what in all this -- the diapers, the sleepless nights, the rides to soccer practice -- I was meant to be looking forward to."

She goes further. "Casting my eye down Fifth Avenue as my belly swelled, I would register with incredulity: Every one of these people came from a woman's cunt ... I once turned heads with a short skirt. Ever notice how many films portray pregnancy as infestation, as colonization by stealth? ... Any woman whose teeth have rotted, whose bones have thinned, whose skin has stretched, knows the humbling price of a nine-month freeloader ... My face was younger but, I thought, dumber looking."

This strikes me as more than maternal ambivalence. I would, in fact, call this misogyny, at least self-hatred, and if you think it understandable in light of the senseless slaughter carried out by this woman's son, we are nonetheless stuck with this unsympathetic narrator for another 350 pages.

Still. There is undeniable excitement in saying the unsayable, in voicing the unpopular, and it mounts as this book goes on. While not always eloquent, Shriver's dive into the icy waters of the human heart is bracing. "I couldn't bear the subtle distrust that was building between us when your experience of our son did not square with mine. I have sometimes entertained the retroactive delusion that even in his crib Kevin was learning to divide and conquer, scheming to present such contrasting temperaments that we were bound to be set at odds. Kevin's features were unusually sharp for a baby, while my own still displayed that rounded Marlo Thomas credulity, as if he had leeched my very shrewdness in utero."

Whatever you believe about nature vs. nurture and the components that aggregate to create the young killers of the Columbine sort, Shriver's horrific tale mesmerizes when it doesn't cauterize.

"Confessions of a Bigamist"
By Kate Lehrer
288 pages
Shaye Areheart Books
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For those who prefer less bloodshed with their beach reading, try bigamy. Not since Anaïs Nin treated us to her diaries has a tale of female double marriage been so rollicking as Kate Lehrer's "Confessions of a Bigamist." New Yorker Michelle Banyon, an attractive, 40-something efficiency consultant with a burgeoning career, takes a business trip to Texas and meets bird doctor Wilson Collins, is seduced, crowned "Mickey," installed in his Victorian farmhouse alongside his skeptical cook, and eventually married.

All this while remaining betrothed to Steve, a fancy international lawyer who remains oblivious to her merrymaking as he closes business deals in Asia. She works to keep two households homey, two men happy, and her career happening. "The transition from a conventional and slightly repressed wife and single-minded career woman to a lust-driven adulteress was dramatic enough, but returning to New York all but undid me."

While occasionally silly and simple -- Michelle doesn't suffer nearly enough, or get caught by nearly enough people for a woman in her public position -- the story has its charms, if only because there is no moral to it, and Michelle gets to keep all her balls in play. "There are so many ways to live a life," she muses at the end. "The way I live wouldn't appeal to everyone, but I am more content than an outlaw like me deserves to be." Spoken like a woman who has turned the word "chick" on its ear.

Barbara O'Dair

Barbara O'Dair is the former editor of both Teen People and Us magazine. She also edited "Trouble Girls: The Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock." She lives in New Jersey.

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