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A Yankee Girl's Guide to Brit Chick Lit

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Book: P.S. I've Taken A Lover

 

The organizer of the work-related dinner wanted to break the ice in a different way. "I'd like everyone in the room to briefly introduce themselves, but instead of saying where you work, tonight tell us about what you do during your time off."

Everyone rose to his or her feet in turn. They mentioned their young children, their daily jog, that trip they made the Australian outback last year. I stood for my turn. "I don't like children," I said, "sports are vile, and there's no time to go jaunting off to the outback. But I do have one special thing in my life that keeps me going. Every Saturday I take the entire day off, and I lie on the sofa reading trashy British novels."

Do you live a life so stressful and action-packed that a nicely-literate-yet-slightly-trashy novel would be the perfect break? Welcome to the world of British Chick Lit.

Book: Jilly cooper, ridersFirst things first: Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones is by no means the first, the most famous or nearly the best. So if you liked Bridget, you'll love this. And if you didn't like her, Chick Lit may still stand a chance.

Second, as far-fetched as some things may seem to us on the other side of the pond -- these novels tend to stay (wild plot twists aside) remarkably true to life. One girlfriend of mine, whose mother knows Jilly Cooper, the genre's best selling author, told me that Cooper uses scraps of overheard conversations from upper crust parties in her novels. Another British acquaintance, this one a thirty-something editor for the Financial Times, told me last Thanksgiving that his wife's unmarried girlfriends all "live life just like these books -- it's sad really."

Why sad? Well, because once you read a few of them (check out the authors listed below) you begin to notice certain trends. The average British woman may never notice these trends, because they take certain conditions for granted that the average American woman would find shocking. I did, at any rate. After immersing myself in Brit Chick Lit, I decided that the gaps between our culture gape about as wide as the Grand Canyon. In fact it seems like the UK lags twenty to thirty years behind us. For example:

- Everybody drinks like fishes. Even the non-drinkers toss back a quick gin and tonic in the evenings -- and not just on weekends either.

- Women with high-powered jobs "in the City" (i.e. banking and financial services) boast thoroughbred legs and model figures to match their designer-labeled wardrobes, live in icily-modern warehouse condos and feel absolutely miserable deep down inside because no man loves them.

- Heroines with jobs in public relations and publishing always serve as lowly underlings, who make very little money, feel terribly put-upon and display the work ethic of a self-centered child -- i.e. absolutely none. Not a single one, ever, actually enjoys her work or invests more than the bare minimum in it. They frequently trail in late for work. Their shopping sprees always lead to overdrafts at the bank, and they generally live in depressingly messy, shared apartments in London. They also spend their days and nights waiting for a man to sweep them away from all of this.

Book: Jill Mansell, perfect timing- Their female bosses spend too much time hobnobbing with the famous, shopping and taking extraordinarily long lunches to ever actually get any work done. These bosses never marry, because if they got married they wouldn't have to do something icky like work, now would they?

- Women's professions -- other than wife, of course -- appear limited to public relations, publishing/media, modeling and finance. When the odd restaurateur or bookstore owner pops up, they provide the exception that proves the rule.

- Most heroines are desperately jealous of and intimidated by other (often wildly famous for no reason) young women with long blonde hair, long skinny legs and deep tans who come in and sweep their boyfriends away. In fact, Brits appear to wallow in the tanning fetish that Americans left behind in the 'Seventies, to the point that many characters slather their bodies with fake-tan cream before important dates.

- They also slather themselves with scent, spraying on a lethal miasma of perfume whenever it an evening threatens to turn romantic. The American perfume industry can only dream of such excess. .

- After only one night's drinking, twenty-somethings jump into the sack with strangers, ex-es and others with stunning regularity. Makes us Americans look like post-AIDs Puritans in comparison.

- Despite this, the women all suffer enormous self-esteem issues, especially concerning their bodies. This does not mean any of them actually take action. Nobody EVER goes to the gym (besides rich, famous, tanned girls we hate). No one ever goes on a diet (ever, ever, ever). No one actually stops smoking or drinking or takes up yoga. No one ever embarks on any course of self-improvement whatsoever beyond redlining their credit cards on new outfits.

- Men control the money. Men make the money. A woman's achievement consists of making the right men.

- As one Amazon.com book reviewer noted, Brit chicks always seem to be wearing disreputable, grayish underwear when Mr. Right finally comes along and sweeps them off their feet. Luckily the men don't appear to notice it. (Well, most American guys consider underwear optional too.)

On the good side, no matter what their class or education, Brit heroines consistently use language wittily. The kind of word play that would make an American writer a bestseller is par for the course even in less-than-great books over there.

Your Quick Guide to Brit Chick Lit Authors

Key: Even more than in America, class determines the tone of every British novel. Therefore, for ease of reference, I included a class guide to get you started.

* Lower-to-lower middle class
** Middle class
*** Upper middle-upper class

This alphabetical listing should not be considered exhaustive:

*** Raffaella Barker -- More of a literary writer than a trash novelist. Her novels feature generally slightly eccentric, over-educated, impoverished, scatty and vaguely artistic families. I especially recommend Hens Dancing.

** Black Lace Books -- Launched in in 1995, Black Lace has published well over 100 books of British (and a teensy bit of American) erotica written specifically for mostly-heterosexual young women by mostly-heterosexual young women. Generally a bit more daring than American erotica -- Americans must contend with that Puritan background, after all. Emma Holly (who recently moved into mainstream historical romances under another imprint) and Juliet Hastings lead pack of the Black Lace writers.

Book: Victoria clayton, past mischeif* Claire Calman -- In Calman's Love is a Four Letter Word, the 27-year-old, overweight (too many post-break-up biscuits) heroine languishes in a badly paid boring job, and feels miserable without a man -- not than she's looking for one, mind you!

***Victoria Clayton -- Perfect for thirty- and forty-somethings with dreams of faded aristocratic grandeur (especially big old mansions needing a bit of work). Clayton offers literate, often heartwarming reads with satisfying endings. My favorite, Past Mischief concerns the recent widow of a notorious philanderer who keeps the ancient home (complete with moat) going while figuring out whether to take up with a brilliant Hungarian pianist or the local, handsome doctor. Very Rosamund Pilcher.

**Jenny Colgan -- Remember every single thing I said in the notes above? Colgan makes them true. Her best-known book, Amanda's Wedding, still delivers the goods, however.

*** Jilly Cooper -- Mother of the entire genre and about the most famous, highest paid, best-selling native British novelist to boot. If you've never heard of Jilly Cooper, you just are not British. Period.

Dozens of younger imitators still copy her classic, short, contemporary romance novels of the 'Sixties and 'Seventies. These titles, including Imogen and Prudence, proved so popular that British publishers still reprint them on a regular basis. In 1985, after years as a fairly successful newspaper columnist and non-fiction writer, Cooper came out with her 632 page novel Riders about the upper-crusty world of show horse jumping, which featured her seminal character, the often copied but never surpassed Rupert Campbell-Black. Cooper reigns supreme as queen of upper-class British trash lit, bar none. Rivals stands as my personal favorite. Grab a copy for your next long air flight or visit to the beach.

Lots of sex, puns, wife stealing, horses, drinking and, yes, true love always wins out in the end. Cooper serves as Britain's answer to classic, before-she-got-stale Judith Krantz.

Book: Jemima trollope, the choir**Emma Davison -- Not very famous, but I include her in this list for old time's sake. I can't forget the fun I derived from Catwalk, the nicely thick adventures of a tall model making her way in the world. Davison very obviously knows whereof she speaks, and those tellingly realistic details combined with classic Chick Lit tradition make her two books good fun indeed.

*** Rosemary Enright -- I go out of my way to track down Enright novels, probably because they ring so close to heart for me. Her heroines, generally (although not always) in their 30s and 40s, settle down to a challenging life after a bit of foolishness in their youth. They often turn a failing business around -- and almost incidentally, wind up meeting the right guy. Unusual for British heroines, these women end up standing comfortably on their own two feet. Personal favorite: The Walled Garden. (Warning: Enright's books may be out of print, and you may want to try one of Web's many secondhand sources.)

** Katie Fforde -- Hugely popular among 30-somethings and their seniors in the UK, because the prolific Fforde's heroines end up in situations so many of us only dream of. Consider Hetty, who saves a stately mansion from disrepair and worse in Stately Pursuits, and Perdita, who runs her own gourmet produce farm in Thyme Out.

Book: katie fforde, second thyme round**Jane Green -- Green's most famous books, Jemima J and Mr. Maybe, didn't remotely interest me. They dwelt on twenty-somethings who whine about life, drink too much and pair off just in time for the curtain to fall. But her Bookends offers a fun read for every woman who fantasizes about opening her own bookstore. Not to mention that handsome artist who keeps dropping by….

*** Wendy Holden -- OK, I don't get it. Rave reviews from The Sunday Times. Publishers in New York fighting over American printing and distribution rights. Blah, blah, blah. Remember what I said above about a lot of puns, sad self-images and intimidation by thin blonde women with deep tans? Welcome to Wendy Holden.

** Erica James -- Sweet love for the early-thirties, newly-divorced crowd in British suburbia. James' book covers feature wistfully lovely paintings. The insides may not excel, but they don't do too bad either. Check out the descriptions for yourself at the online bookstore of your choice.

** Lisa Jewell -- Best known for her novel, Ralph's Party, which hit the UK best sellers list for quite a while in 1999-2000. Check it out for an intimate view into the lives of London's twenty-somethings. The girls all work in PR or publishing, naturally. Provides a nicely done look into the average guy's head as well. Everybody drinks too much, sleeps with people they wonder about in the morning but somehow hooks up with the right spouse material in the end.

* Christina Jones -- Jones' working-middle class characters come as a relief after a steady diet of romances about London-based, university graduates with jobs in publishing or PR. If you ever dreamed of owning your own business (and meeting the man of your dreams), definitely check out these entrepreneurial heroines who start their own companies in fascinating areas such as wing-walking at aerial shows, antique circus attractions, bookmaking (as in taking gambling bets) and bookselling.

Book: marianne keyes, rachel's holiday** Marian Keyes -- Hugely successful in the UK, Keyes's fat 600-plus page books focus on young single women who are utterly gasping for a man, hate their boring jobs, and often boast some Irish connection. They usually drink a bit too much and put up with truly awful guys before Mr. Right comes along. Her books also often display that "very special" feeling, as in "a very special episode of" a TV show which socks us with a message in the end.

*** India Knight -- Knight's first novel, My Life in a Plate, made the bestseller lists, saw publication in 16 countries. She even sold the film rights. And it's not bad. The typically self-depreciating heroine, a 33-year-old freelance writer, starts out in a perfect marriage with a great house, cute kids and a handsome husband who holds down a prestigious job so she doesn't need to. But one day our heroine wakes up and wonders shouldn't there be more. Yes, the replacement man -- a gorgeous, highly successful, dancer -- struck me as totally unrealistic, but I like fairy tales as much as the next person.

** Chris Manby -- According to book jacket blurbs, Manby's novels qualify as "hilarious romantic comedies", but I'd advise Americans to stay away from them. Her heroines never, ever, lose sight of their many "imperfections" and fall for the biggest creeps (before meeting Mr. Right, of course) that they just make me squirm uncomfortably.

* Jill Mansell -- Although rich people, such as rock stars, occasionally wander through the pages of Jill Mansell's novels, she really writes for the new middle classes. Your parents or your grandparents were working class, you're not, and you're sexy to boot. Wahoo! Typical Mansell title, Good at Games.

**Anna Maxted -- Maxted's most famous best-seller, Getting Over It, deals with death and bereavement in Brit Chick Lit style. The heroine hates her publishing job and endures the affections of a no-good boyfriend. Then her father dies. Getting Over It provides a slightly more literate (yet still witty) turn on Bridget Jones' territory.

Book: melissa nathan, pride, prejudice and jasmine field*** Melissa Nathan -- Oh, would that Nathan wrote faster and produced more books! Both of Nathan's books, Pride, Prejudice & Jasmin Field and Persuading Annie, offer a modern take on Jane Austin's novels. Her heroines qualify as unusually intelligent (even compared to their Chick Lit peers), well-grounded and witty. A definite relief from the oooh-my-life-is-miserable-without-a-man crowd.

*** Georgina Newbery -- If you ever wanted to see behind-the-scenes in the European fashion and modeling scene, and you love eccentric charactors and witty repartee -- plus a splash of danger -- you want to read Georgina Newberry. As a former Vogue editor and business exec at John Galliano's company, she walks the (cat)walk and talks the talk. Although each book stands on its own, you'll want to read them in order to get the full impact of the great recurring characters. Start with Catwalk, proceed to Think Pink, then progress to the deliciously-named Sand and Slingbacks.

** Freya North -- The descriptions on the backs of North's books are worth the price of admission alone. For example: "With sex, drugs, lashings of lycra, large bulges and larger egos, the soap opera that is the Tour de France unfolds…" Recommended for a rainy or snowy weekend's read. Most romantic: Chloe.

Book: Freya North, chloe**Linda Taylor If you're in your early 30s and feel like your (single) life is going nowhere, Taylor is the author for you. Her heroines make big changes -- one gets pregnant, another leaves her career to get a non-related degree at Oxford -- and end up meeting the guy-of-their-life along the way.

**.5 Joanna Trollope Some Joanna Trollope readers will be shocked to find her on this list as she is all about Real Literature vs. trashy romantic stuff. However, all of Trollope's books, no matter how literary, do revolve around the question of 20-30-somethings finding true love. Most romantic: Legacy of Love a trilogy in one cover, which she originally wrote under the penname of Caroline Harvey.

** and one-half Fiona Walker -- Walker's first few books, including, French Relations, are a direct take off of Jilly Cooper's. But, that's doesn't mean they're not a heck of a lot of fun. (Cooper is worthy of copying!) Now she's finding her own voice. The only book to avoid is Between Males which I found a bit too dark. Grab the rest and enjoy yourself.

**Isabel Wolff -- Poor Wolff's heroines meet and date so many self-centered Mr. Wrongs that one begins to wonder why they long so desperately to date more men. Her most famous book, The Trials of Tiffany Trott, offers a great fun though, as the title character tries everything -- from classifieds to blind dates -- to meet a man she can love. The unexpected ending of this light-hearted book definitely rocks.

** Also recommended -- Girls' Night In a lovely, fat (586 pages) anthology featuring 31 short-stories by leading Brit Chick Lit authors, including Fiona Walker, Marian Keyes and Freya North. For just six pounds (just under $9), it supplies a walloping dose of romance and wit, in nice shorter chunks perfect for before-bed reading.

Where to Buy Brit Chick Lit Books

Since the success of Bridget Jones' Diary, a surprising number of British bestsellers in this genre have been published in the US. The publishers change the cover art completely, but the text remains the same. If you can't find a particular author at the U.S. bookstore of your choice try:

Amazon UK
Internet Bookshop UK
ABE Books (for used and hard-to-find books)

Anne Hills Holland

Readers Respond

Hi there -

Well, so that's what I get for poking about on the internet instead of getting on with my next book. Sorry to be critical, but I would like to make a couple of comments on your feature on British chick lit: I am one of the authors mentioned (Claire Calman). This is just a matter of accuracy -- it's fine not to like my books, but please make sure you've read them first!

1. The heroine, Bella, is 33 not 27.
2. There is no mention of her being overweight -- what made you think she was? Yes, there are biscuits on the cover of the book -- this is determined by the publisher, not by the author.
3. She is an art director, and is not badly paid.
4. She is miserable because she is a) bereaved, having lost her boyfriend in an industrial accident the year before and b) suffering from guilt.

I don't see it as a dating novel -- depressed-woman-desperate-for-man -- but, hey, what would I know? The principal theme is loss/fear of loss, echoed by the main mother/daughter sub-plot -- wasn't this apparent?

Aside from that, your site looks extremely entertaining and I'm glad to have come across it by accident. Hope you don't mind my responding to your article (work-avoidance, of course).

Best wishes -
Claire Calman

Not at all, Claire. We appreciate your comments. Cheers.

Jean Marie Ward

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