Monday, August 27, 2007

Laughter Reviews, #5

Time for another review with the focus: funny or not?


Shopping addict faces threats to her marriage, her home, her employment, and the reality that advanced pregnancy involves severe biological facts.

What Works
This is the fifth installment in the hugely popular 'Shopaholic' series. Apprentice Writer is one of many, many readers who have followed Becky Bloomwood Brandon from her start as a chronically cash-strapped brand name lover in London whose every effort to overcome her problem goes disastrously wrong. She and true love Luke subsequently move to New York where she lands her dream job as personal shopper at retail mecca Barney's, make convoluted efforts to please all parties when they marry, return to Britain, and discover a long-lost sister who is Becky's polar opposite in the consumerism department.

Much of what propelled the series to household-name status is still here; Becky's short-sighted habit of leaping out of the frying pan into the fire (the opening line reads "O.K. Don't Panic."), the flair with which she manages to find a way out of her self-created messes, her unshakeable loyalty to family and friends even under trying circumstances.

In classic chicklit style, the shopaholic books are written in the first person. By breaking up the chapters with samples of Becky's correspondence with bank managers, financial advisors and suchlike, the author has found a clever way of sharing other viewpoints while adding another layer of insight to her heroine's character. The horror of the investment specialist who encouraged her to invest in gold, and who is forced to specify that he meant bullion when she interprets his advice as encouragement to buy jewellry from the Tiffany catalogue, is almost tangible. Numerous such incidents make it very difficult to believe that Becky used to be a financial journalist, yet she is once again vindicated in one of her more unusual investment decisions.


What Doesn't
There is a pivotal moment in the first Shopaholic book when the heroine realizes the futility of trying to solve her woes with retail therapy. Such a moment was desperately needed here.

Mentally, Becky is right back where she started all those books ago. It seems as if her chief reason for being happy with her pregnancy is because it justifies exercising her credit cards more frenetically than ever. When Luke is shocked at the exorbitant price tags of items she has chosen, she either fumes that he just doesn't 'get it', or chastises him for not wanting the best for their child. Becky won't rest until she is accepted as a patient by an 'It' obstetrician, because she wants the cosmetics-filled goody-bag and reasoning that since the doctor's other patients are A-list celebrities, this makes Becky A-list as well - medical qualifications and professional skill being an afterthought. She hopes the success of Luke's latest business venture will translate into purchase of an island, since she has always felt "left out" due to not owning one. Showing a perspective typical of the whole book, Becky's first impression of a Baby Exhibition is: "....I can't stop looking around at everyone's prams and changing bags and baby outfits." In other words, the babies and parents themseves are invisible - she sees only their belongings.

This extreme materialism is so off-putting that when the villainess is driven to question Luke why he married Becky, considering she has no depth and cares only about clothes, the reader can't help but sympathize. Luke does well as replies go, but by this point Becky has all but run out of reader goodwill. She is only redeemed by speculation that this behaviour may be how she deals with stress about impending labour and delivery, and by the fact that she genuinely loves the sprog who duly arrives and is truly touched when friends offer home-made shower gifts for the mom-to-be who has already bought all of London.

In other places, descriptions of a nursing mother drinking and of Becky's hope that her baby will be a 'party girl' were surprising. Apprentice Writer gives the benefit of the doubt; perhaps in Britain, nutritional guidelines for lactating women and the surfeit of images of famous party girls in a revolving door of papparazzi wet-dream behavior / rehab / jail / begin again are different than in North America.


As always, Becky manages to deliver creative solutions to her dilemmas. Yet the satisfied feeling that should accompany the ending falls flat because of a glaringly missed opportunity. Becky comes across the Vogue magazine article featuring herself as a yummy mummy, showing her (soon-to-be) palatial home with his'n'her nurseries, a shoe room, etc., etc. and the quote, "I have five prams. I don't think that's too many, do you?"

At this point in the story, the Brandons have actually lost the chance to purchase that house and have already sold their previous home. But they have also been offered the use of a friend's castle, have moved in with her parents who provide oodles of emotional and practical support, have saved Becky's place of employment, put Luke's business back on ethical footing, vanquished the villainess, recommitted to their marriage, and brought a beautiful baby into the world without any damage to mother or child.

Does Becky take a moment to ponder her tremendous good fortune in all these priceless possessions? Does she develop some insight into her equation of ownership with self-esteem, or the over-the-top excess that marked her fixation with the house? She does not. Instead, she promises the baby to find another, even better (read: bigger) house.

But does it make you laugh? YES
Exasperating though she can be, Becky still has the power to amuse.

But the danger signs that she might turn into Momzilla (judging her own and other's offspring according to clothes and chicness of birthday parties, thinking the she and the child are failures if they don't get into a celebrity preschool, turning her baby into a mini-me version of her hyper-spending self) are sprinkled all over this text. If Becky really does go on to become a parody of her former not-so-shallow-as-others-assume persona, Shopaholic and Apprentice Writer will finallybe forced to part ways.


Wylie Kinson said...

Terrific review M. I haven't delved into this series yet. The TBR mountain is just a tad too high, but I've intention of adding these in the not-to-distant future.

M. said...

thanks wylie. in the meantime, i've added bill bryson, christopher moore and terry ptatchett to my tbr pile....