My niece and I were chatting on a recent visit, and the subject of recent readings popped up. I mentioned how I had been on this Bridget Jones kick—reading nothing but frothy novels about young women, their dull work lives, and their exciting sexcapades. She suddenly perked up and said, "You mean there are other ones?" She had loved that transatlantic book/movie phenom, Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding, but hadn't taken note of the fact that publishers—like Hollywood or the music industry—like to mine a book's success by green-lighting wannabes or packaging other unwitting authors as if they fit into the genre. I immediately made up a list for her. She devoured them all.
I've read around 15 of them in the past couple of years. Here's what they have in common: a young, college- educated, female protagonist who has a dead-end job that is beneath her; a complicated sex life that is active in its pursuit of pleasure (think "do me" feminism) but often thwarted by the ineptness or sexism of the men involved; and a traditional sense of romance— the heroines still want to be swept off their feet by an eligible young bachelor. The novels are decidedly middlebrow comedies; they employ straightforward narratives and character development that you can read without either straining or completing disengaging your brain.
Obviously, they make excellent gifts for young, female relatives—but don't overlook their attraction as diversion for the doddering male of the species (my wife, actually, likes them, too).
My top five post-Bridget picks:
1. The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank (Penguin Putnam, $12.95)
The author reportedly walked off with 275,000 smackers for this short story collection, which only shows how fiercely publishers compete for the Next Big Thing. The same character, Jane Rosenal, narrates most of the stories in the collection at different stages of her life. Most of the stories feature sparse, elegant prose but are kind of dreary and aimless. The long title piece that finishes the book is a dramatic departure—it's told in a very different voice and is perfectly realized: A friend insists Jane follow the instructions in How to Meet and Marry Mr. Right with hilarious and poignant results. Naturally, Francis Ford Coppola hired Bank to write a screenplay based on it.
2. In the Drink by Kate Christensen (Anchor Books/Doubleday, $12)
Christensen's ambitions are much higher than Bridget creator Fielding's. Her protagonist, Claudia Steiner, leads a much more real life with sharper edges. (There's lots of boozing and meaningless coupling, which actually becomes tiring.) The strongest part of the novel concerns Steiner's work life as a Girl Friday to a hellacious boss—a romance author named Jackie del Castellano—that depicts dead-on the mindset created in an employee by a dysfunctional workplace.
3. Run Catch Kiss by Amy Sohn (Simon and Schuster, $12.00)
Here's a good, smutty, fun roman ࠣlef that throws an alternative weekly into the formula. Sohn wrote a column called "Female Trouble" for the New York Press—in her novel, she plays with the idea that a young woman without much sex or romance in her life can still sell herself as a sex expert to leering middle-aged men who run a publication hungry for young female readers. The novel delivers lots of heat and laughs, and doesn't take itself too seriously, romping from one outrageous encounter to the next.
4. Going Down by Jennifer Belle (Riverhead Books, $12.95)
Belle's work not only transcends this genre, but all genres. In this story of a 19-year-old college student who starts working as a hooker, Belle somehow manages to combine realistic depictions of prostitution with a surrealistic romance, whacked-out humor, and a very intense personal struggle. The parts don't fight but effortlessly flow into one another, creating a tableau that is a lot like life. Especially life in Manhattan.
5. Girl Talk by Julianna Baggott (Atria Books, $14)
Baggott has created quirky people, a good sense of humor, and female characters with a developed sexuality and men problems, but, despite its obvious Bridget-like packaging, this is a literary novel with depth, range, and prose that Fielding doesn't wield in her novels. The piece has a prologue and ending set when the heroine is an adult that are somewhat awkward, but the bulk of the book is about the summer that Lissy Jablonski's dad ran off with a glamorous bank teller. Baggott does a terrific job in capturing an adolescent's point of view and voice. Her plot is wonderfully convoluted and complicated, revealing much about families and their secrets.