Summer reads

Chic lit: From a saga of 17th century maidens to a 21st century mom flirting with disaster, our novel recommendations will make you feel cheap and sexy in the best possible way.

Published June 11, 2007 11:55AM (EDT)

Throughout June, Salon's staff is recommending summer books that won't make you feel cheap and empty. (Or maybe they will, in the best possible way.) Last week we featured killer thrillers.

In this second of four installments, we spotlight five novels we've dubbed "chic lit." They range from a lighthearted romp through the life of a novelist turned obsessive fan, to a dramatic historical novel about 17th century Chinese maidens chafing against their limitations, to a comedy about a bumbling mommy flirting with adultery, to close encounters between New York dog lovers, to a sexy British melodrama featuring an abandoned baby and three now-successful women who may be the mother.

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"Little Stalker"
By Jennifer Belle
Riverhead, $24.95

Jennifer Belle, the quirky, funny, JAP-tastic writer who brought you the hooker-pays-her-way-through-college classic "Going Down," and the paean to real estate lust "High Maintenance, is back this summer with "Little Stalker." It's the story of a 33-year-old one-hit-wonder novelist who's working as a receptionist at her father's medical office, stealing money from him, discovering secrets about her family's dark past, befriending the elderly, dementia-stricken Mrs. Williams, falling in love with a paparazzo while dodging a sociopathic gossip columnist, and spying on her celebrity obsession, neurotic, nebbishy, scandalously kinky New York film director "Arthur Weeman." Ahem.

"Little Stalker" hops and shimmies with perhaps an excess of twisty plot: Secret relatives? Check. Barely repressed pubescent sexual trauma? Check. Nasty relationship with a distant, deceptive father? Check. Unraveling mysteries about the sexual proclivities of that famous director? Check. A brain tumor? You got it.

All this energy makes Belle's third effort, like her underattended-to previous novels, compulsively readable. And the joyous mix of New York eccentricity, sexuality and loneliness make it a precise and surprisingly stirring tale of a woman trying to broker a peace between her badly damaged 13-year-old self and her self-absorbed armor-coated adult identity.

Like Belle's other books, "Little Stalker" studiously shies away from the saccharine. Rebekah is dry, wry, overlived and underloved; she gets her daily doses of affection from Pa, as played by Michael Landon on "Little House on the Prairie" reruns, and throws up on a man to whom she's administering a blow job (blame her blocked throat chakra).

The speed of the narrative seems to have translated to the editing process, which feels distractingly sloppy in the hardcover edition I read. At one point, while considering her shifting cinematic sympathies for characters in Arthur Weeman films, Belle writes, "It was Diane Keaton who kept me spellbound, while Mariel Hemingway left me cold." Hey, wait! Aren't we, or the libel lawyers at the Penguin Group, supposed to believe that Arthur Weeman, with his stutter, egg-shaped glasses and taste for Elaine's, is a figment of Belle's cinematic fantasy world? At another Freudian moment, Belle writes about an exchange with her editor, who is pooh-poohing Rebekah's proposed novel about a pedophilic septuagenarian movie director and instead pushing her toward chick lit. "I promise you a lighthearted romp through New York," Rebekah tells her. "'Oh. Well, then, this is wonderful news,' Evan said, cumming around." It reads like a moment of typographical rebellion, recalling Belle's earlier, smuttier subject matter.

And yet, Belle does provide a lightish-hearted romp through New York, making us laugh at the sadness of Upper East Side dowager Mrs. Williams, who like her younger friend gets her emotional sustenance from television, frequently asserting that she, Blanche Rose, and Dorothy are going to dine on the lanai. "Little Stalker" is an affecting meditation on the connections we make -- with others and with ourselves -- as we age, from a writer whose work is maturing quite beautifully.

-- Rebecca Traister

"Peony in Love"
By Lisa See
Random House, $23.95

If you prefer your romance with historical, international and supernatural flair, reach for Lisa See's "Peony in Love." See, the author of 2005's widely acclaimed "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan," takes readers to 17th century China, in uproar after the cataclysmic end of the Ming dynasty.

See's subjects are the so-called lovesick maidens, wealthy young women who became consumed by the popular opera "The Peony Pavilion." The opera, which is still performed today, told the story of a 16-year-old woman who wrestled control of her own destiny by starving herself and finding love after death. It inspired imitation among its rabid young fans, eager to take control of their own romantic and literary lives in a culture that robbed them of any independence or authority.

See bases her story on three real lovesick ladies, Tan Ze, Qian Yi and Chen Tong. The book is loaded with fascinating detail about 17th century customs, superstitions, landscape and folklore. From the infected and broken-boned pain of foot binding to the maggoty remains of food offered to unhappy spirits by wealthy families, "Peony in Love" evokes the unpleasant realities of post-Ming-dynasty China even as it chronicles a lush and ethereal love story.

From the solid grounding in history, See's story takes flight into fantasy. Chen Tong, the 15-year-old would-be scholar whose scandalous and illicit (though squeaky clean by today's standards) encounter with a male poet sets the book in motion, is soon a lovesick lass, dead one-third of the way into the story. She becomes a "Hungry Ghost," a shade who cannot take her rightful place among her family's revered "ancestors" because some burial rites have been carelessly ignored. And so she settles her spirit self into her beloved poet's home and insinuates herself into his next two marriages, using the delay in straightening out her postmortem paperwork to coach his wives on everything from oral sex to literary criticism.

With "Peony in Love," See delivers a powerful meditation on the place of women and their voices in a society that has little use for either. One character, certain of impending death, scrawls anonymous lines of poetry on a wall; another allows her husband to take credit for her scholarship; several characters see their work burned, or burn it themselves in acts of self-loathing and humiliation.

A few women succeed, in life or after death, in going public: writing and publishing under their own names, leaving the world with volumes like Tan Ze, Qian Yi and Chen Tong's commentary on "The Peony Pavilion," a text that was celebrated and then reviled, but from which, 200 years later, See found the inspiration for her own work.

-- Rebecca Traister

"Slummy Mummy"
By Fiona Neill
Riverhead, $24.95

"Slummy Mummy" opens with a gulp -- that of Lucy Sweeney's husband swallowing one of her contact lenses, which she had foolishly left to soak overnight in a mug. "I'm not going to try to make myself sick this time," the long-suffering (but secretly devoted) husband warns her. "Wear your glasses."

Like Allison Pearson's "I Don't Know How She Does It" -- the birth mama of this genre -- "Slummy Mummy" originally ran in serial form in a British newspaper, giving it the kind of snappy humor and leisurely pace just right for drowsy summer afternoons. Or should I say, drowsy summer afternoons interrupted by kids who have somehow gotten sand in their underpants or stumbled into a patch of poison sumac.

Fiona Neill lays on just the right amount of lifelike and self-deprecating detail in her depiction of Lucy, a former London TV producer who still can't get the hang of being a stay-at-home mom. The yummy mummies at her son's school exude glamour and ease, while Lucy bumbles even the most mundane of activities. Trying to look chic at a school event, she realizes that the bulge in the calf of her skinny jeans is actually yesterday's knickers. And when she develops a crush on a handsome fellow parent she nicknames "Sexy Domesticated Dad," Lucy is beset by a guilty feeling she equates to sneaking a cigarette and "reconnecting momentarily with a feeling of liberation associated with a different period in my life, when pleasure was there for the taking."

That doesn't stop her from flirting, though, or from living vicariously through her reckless, child-free friends who date married men and use their phones for text-message sex. In Lucy, Neill has created a neurotic, likable heroine whose charms shine through the predictable plot.

-- Joy Press

"The New Yorkers: A Novel"
By Cathleen Schine
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24

At first, Cathleen Schine's "The New Yorkers" lulls you into thinking it's a breezy, gentle examination of a half-dozen or so residents of an Upper West Side block and the people and dogs they love and long for. But what makes this charming novel (Schine's seventh) really stick to you is her characters' vividly described insecurities and self-doubt, which cling to them like collie fur on cashmere.

Jody, the fresh-faced, soap-smelling late-30-something at the center of her lively neighborhood, lives alone in the same rent-stabilized studio she moved into nearly two decades ago, about the same time she started her job as a grade-school music teacher. "Good old Jody," her colleagues say. She has generally settled into a calm, quiet life -- except for her insomnia, brought on by waves of loneliness and puzzled disappointment.

"Her colleagues respected her and they were friendly to her, but not one of them was her friend. Jody wondered if this was her fault. But then, who else's fault could it be? It's not the mailman's fault, she would remind herself. It's not the vice principal's fault. It's not even the Republicans' fault. Wherein, then, did her own fault lie? This was a mystery to Jody, one she pondered at night in bed."

Resigned to isolated spinsterhood, she goes to the ASPCA to search for the cat she felt fate had bestowed upon her, only to find her heart melting for a giant, elderly pit-bull mix "so white it was almost pink." She promptly names her Beatrice, and shortly thereafter, as they say in the movies, her life starts going in startling new directions. [Cut to: Gigantic Beatrice yanking adorable Jody all over Central Park. Cue: Uplifting Mandy Moore soundtrack.]

It's not that simple, but the mutts in Schine's novel are the change agents here (except for one character, whose puppy love, alas, comes too little, too late). They're charged with activating these characters and thrusting them out in the world, whether it's the hipster bartender, George, who uses his sister's adorable puppy, Howdy, as a chick magnet, or Everett, Jody's enigmatic crush object, whom the affable Howdy helps recover from a divorce and middle-aged torpor in order to ... feel again. Oh brother, does that sound hokey. And yet any time "The New Yorkers" threatens to veer into dog-earned corn, Schine's wonderful, believably human characters, with their self-sabotage and irrational self-doubt, rein it in. In the end, the only love that comes easy here has a collar attached.

-- Kerry Lauerman

"Sheer Abandon"
By Penny Vincenzi
Doubleday, $24.95

You know how everything sounds smarter with a British accent?

Penny Vincenzi, a former Vogue and Tatler journalist who has published 11 successful novels in her native England, now brings her sudsy flourish to American shelves with "Sheer Abandon." Dressed up in a hard cover with an Anita Shreve-ish image on its front, "Sheer Abandon" carries a starred review from Publishers Weekly and 10 kilos of buzz from across the pond, where it was a sensational bestseller.

But between its deceptively respectable covers lurks, to borrow verbatim from one of Vincenzi's sex scenes, "something dark, and soft, and treacherous": a story so devilishly soap operatic that reading all 626 pages will not tax you one wit! Incidentally, that's not a complaint. Vincenzi has offered up a delightful summer treat, an episode of "General Hospital" disguised as "Masterpiece Theatre."

The stupefyingly melodramatic tale begins with the brief encounter in the 1980s of three beautiful, charismatic young women who meet while backpacking around Asia as students. They eventually part ways and vow lifelong friendship, which naturally doesn't pan out. At the end of their travels, and at the start of "Sheer Abandon," one of these young travelers -- the carrot, you see, is that we don't know which one! -- gives birth and abandons a baby in London's Heathrow Airport.

Fifteen years later, the ditched tot is a conveniently gorgeous and petulant teen determined to track down the mother who left her to the wolves.

What has become of the backpackers? Naturally, they have grown into urban wolves themselves: wealthy and glamorous and high-powered in their respective fields. One is a wildly successful businesswoman making a move into conservative politics; one is a gifted doctor in a destructive and doomed marriage; one is a tabloid journo -- not just some sad striver but a well-remunerated reporter with a lavish expense account, mane of blond hair and access to London's most exclusive circles.

Here are things you need to know about this book: Characters are named Jocasta and Clio. Actual pieces of dialogue include, "What, as in Gideon Keeble, the Billionaire Retailing Tycoon?" and "I love you. Love you an awful lot. You silly bitch." And that sex scene about something dark and soft and treacherous? It culminates thus: "She softened, sweetened under him, coaxing her body skillfully in the way he knew best, into a mounting, brightening pleasure; even as she felt her climax gather and grow and then spread out into starry piercing release, she felt still wary, hurt ..."

Oh yeah. You know what this book is. It's Pat Booth, baby, Jackie Collins! You stole it from your baby sitter, or hid it from your own teenagers in the cooler you brought to the beach! Back then its covers were soft and decorated with palm trees and the Hollywood sign, but this summer, you can carry it proudly in public (provided you can lift it, that is) and tell the world that it has been very well reviewed. It's British, after all.

-- Rebecca Traister

By Salon Staff

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