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I'm not what you'd call a fan of chick-lit. Whilst I'm certainly not a feminist, I don't appreciate (and I doubt I'm alone) being referred to as a 'chick', and unnecessary abbreviations have always irritated me. Frankly, even the covers of most of these Bridget Jones style books tend to make me roll my eyes to heaven and go in search of a real novel. I know you shouldn't judge a book by its cover and I also know that the term 'chick-lit' has a tendency to disguise any semblance of authorial talent with sentimental clap-trap, but it's almost as though the publishers are deliberately trying to isolate these books from their seemingly more 'literary' fictional counterparts. The glossy images of lipstick-coated, designer women wearing high heels seem aimed at a market seeking a read no more challenging than a copy of Bella magazine. On a purely commercial level, this can only be a good thing. Fans of this genre will be able to locate these novels easily in a bookshop, but I can't help but wonder if these stereotypically recognisable book jackets - much like the repeated images of forlorn five year olds on the covers of the currently (and rather worryingly) booming market of autobiographical accounts by abused children - are alienating a large portion of the reading public. Should they have a more valid place in literature rather than this tacky genre title they have been given? Like Mills & Boon novels, their reputation goes before them and we consider chick-lit to be written to an age old formula, regardless of whether there is more to it than meets the eye. We see the images on the cover; assume the 'read one, read 'em all' mentality and move on.
SO, WHY DID I BUY IT?
It is quite bizarre that this little novella, which embodies all the things I would normally avoid, ever found its way into my paws at all. I realised, as I ummed and aahed about purchasing such a book, that I have become a literature snob and am in danger of forevermore denying myself that lovely, light-hearted holiday reading feeling. I make no bones about reading 'Heat' magazine if it's loitering around the office, so is it really so bad to treat myself to a bit of trashy literature every once in a while when I'm not on holiday? After all, I've nearly always struggled with Booker Prize winning/ shortlisted novels and if commercial success equals enjoyment as opposed to intellectual brain strain, then surely it can't be a bad thing?
When I first picked up this book, I didn't spare a thought for the content. I was amused that I knew someone who shared the same name as the author and that was the sole reason for me starting to read the first couple of pages, even though a cursory glance at the cover had told me that this probably wasn't my scene. In fairness, I should probably admit that when Helen Fielding's 'Bridget Jones Diary' came onto the scene a few years back, I did enjoy it. I thought it was well written and funny and, although I could only cope with that writing style in small doses, I found I could relate to it as a woman in her early twenties. But, and it's a big but, Helen Fielding was a respected journalist when she began her column in The Independent. Regardless of content, she could clearly write and write well and I felt the term chick-lit to be a somewhat derogatory label for her stuff. However, it certainly seems to be an accurate description for the majority of 'chick-lit' categorised novels which have followed!
I'd never heard of Lucy Dawson before and I've since discovered that this is her debut novel. I caught myself doing a quick check around the book shop to ensure no one was looking (as if anyone would care!) and started to read. About half an hour later and fifty pages into the book, I was appalled to realise that I'd totally lost track of time and I actually cared about what was going to happen to the characters. I left Waterstones quickly in a state of concern, but it took me less than a week to cave in and buy it. I can't really say why save for the fact that it poses a 'what if' storyline that will appeal to female curiosity and force you to either empathise with the protagonist (if you've had a similar experience) or leave you with the smug sense of satisfaction that your relationship with your loved one is much stronger. Either way it does make you reassess your own situation, so is clearly thought-provoking.
Mia and Pete have been together in what she considers to be a 'grown up' relationship for some time. Her sister keeps asking her how she knows he's the one for her and Mia says that she just knows. They seem perfectly happy and fairly well off financially. They have a home and a puppy and everything seems hunky dory…yawn. Thankfully, the introduction to all this is fairly short-lived, or it would become pretty dull pretty quickly. One night, while Pete is asleep, she accidentally trips over his phone (bit unlikely I know) and finds a text message from another woman, which flags up all kinds of questions and causes her to think he's having an affair. After finding what she considers to be foolproof evidence that this is the case, she then has to make the decision between leaving him and seeking revenge. Of course, leaving him would not make for a very impressive story and so she chooses the rather bizarre tactic of sticking around and testing him. Obviously this opens up a great deal more options for the writer and makes things far more interesting, if slightly unrealistic, for the reader.
So, it's pretty simplistic and not exactly original, but I have to hand it to this author for creating just the right amount of tension and fear felt by this woman when she discovers that the love of her life is not who she thought he was. It works really well, regardless of whether or not you've been in this situation, as it forces you to think about your own relationship and consider how well you know your own partner. Horrible though it sounds, because it is fictional, there is also something morbidly fascinating and potentially reassuring about reading about someone else's misfortune. This story enables you to wander into someone else's private life and see the destructive possibilities of emotional lies.
Mia's behaviour and actions in light of this unwanted information change her so drastically as a person that it's difficult to decide exactly who is in the wrong by the end of the novel, which is ever so slightly ambiguous. There are undoubtedly thousands of tales out there about unfaithful partners and yet, this is kept refreshing by its modern feel. The fact that she reveals her boyfriend's other life through text messages and rifling through emails and bills makes the deceit a far more visual thing, both for her and the reader. This, in turn, makes us feel as though we are experiencing it with her. It is only as the novel progresses that we find ourselves doubting her as a reliable narrator. Is she any less devious than her unfaithful partner considering she chooses vengeance over simply confronting her lover?
WHAT DO I THINK?
Well, in all honesty, I would have been better off putting the book down in Waterstones and not continuing to read it until the end. I flew through the book in less than a day and, at a little over 200 pages, that's not exactly difficult but I have to hand it to Lucy Dawson as she's certainly given us a page turner of a debut.
Unfortunately, the book's initial power lies in the unknown and therefore decreases as we are presented with more knowledge. There is something far more compelling and appealing about this unfaithful man, when his other woman is built up to be this untouchable and glamorous actress in the distance. The fact that she may not be all she is cracked up to be when Mia finally finds her in the flesh makes her boyfriend's actions seem even more spineless and also made me begin to resent Mia for the fact that she continued to hang around. We are with Mia when we find out that her boyfriend is being unfaithful and feel as though we are sharing the same bad news she is facing. Therefore, as a reader, we almost feel as though we should remain with her through the rest of her experience and yet, I found myself losing my attachment halfway through because I couldn't empathise with her actions. What started as a good premise for a story swiftly became ever so slightly unrealistic and I found myself getting itchy feet wishing that Mia would just get to the bottom of it all. Unfortunately, my intrigue dissipated quite quickly the moment I realised I knew all there was to know. Once the loose ends are tied up, the excitement of the unknown is gone, leaving us with the dregs of an affair no different from any other.
The first half of the novel is really strong in terms of making you wonder what is going to happen next, but there are a few threads which aren't tied up as neatly as I would have liked, which the author just seemed to forget about. As I mentioned, I also lost a bit of interest in Mia as a character. At the start, I found myself rooting for this bright, attractive and intelligent woman, but by the end I found her actions to be almost as disgraceful as her boyfriend's and the suspension of disbelief became too much when I realised that anyone as clued up as she seems to be would not have gone to such lengths to save a relationship which was clearly doomed.
The ending, whilst deliberately ambiguous, also irritated me to the point of wanting to bang all the characters' heads together, although I did relate to the author's portrayal of theatrical stereotypes and felt her characters were quite believable for the most part.
HAS IT CHANGED MY VIEWS ON CHICK-LIT?
In a word, no. I'm sorry, but this novel sums up everything which results in eye rolling and heaven staring for me. Having said that, although this is not the kind of thing I will ever buy in future, there was something quite nice about a spot of total escapism and it would be unfair of me to say that it was not written in a compelling and skilled way. The author's depiction of Pete was, if anything, more convincing to me than that of Mia, which is unusual for a debut novel by a woman, especially in this genre.
And, aside from the odd plot flaw/ omission, I did enjoy reading this book. I certainly wouldn't part with my pennies for something like this again unless I was going on holiday, but if you're after a spot of light-hearted entertainment to while away a couple of hours, you could certainly do a lot worse.
For the avoidance of doubt, I definitely would NOT recommend this to men and I think I'm beginning to see that my chick-lit argument fell down rather badly. There is a very valid reason why publishers seem to insist on segregating these novels from other works of fiction and it would appear that it can only be a good thing.
In summary, there is absolutely nothing wrong with chick-lit but personally, I'm going to opt for something a little more mentally stimulating next time!