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Thursday, November 06, 2003

Jenny Colgan vs. Olivia Joules 

Well folks, this was the review I'd been waiting for. I'll explain why. The thing that struck me about Helen Fielding's new novel wasn't so much that it was a "departure" from the Bridget Jones books, but that she was trying to do something which, frankly, has been done a whole hell of a lot better by other writers.

OLIVIA JOULES is supposed to be a plot-driven book about a woman who kicks ass and takes names, but does so in a distinctly feminine manner. She's a superspy who doesn't use a gun. She gets to run around the world saving bad guys, all the while looking good. Well guess what? This isn't new or refreshing or even all that exciting, not when we've got this manifesto around:

Tart. It's a potent four-letter word. Sweet, sour, sharp, sexy, bad, with a touch of cheesecake. It seemed to sum up the detectives in a certain segment of the crime fiction genre, the independent-minded female sleuths who are tough enough to take on thugs and corrupt cops, tender enough to be moved by tough, tender men (or women, as the case may be). These are neofeminist women, half Philip Marlowe, half femme-fatale, who make their own rules, who think it's entirely possible to save the world while wearing a drop-dead dress and stiletto heels. Our heroines are Modesty Blaise and Emma Peel, our morals are questionable and our attitude always needs adjustment...

That's taken from the introduction of the 2002 short story collection TART NOIR, which grew out of the Tart City website. It's a collection that takes this philosophy to heart, and then some. They started by reading Peter O'Donnell's classic novels and comic strip about Modesty--a woman who got into fearless adventures but did it her way, and never sacrificed her femininity. She didn't have to. Emma, of course, is every man's dream, and every woman aspires to own her wardrobe. But she was more than that--smart, witty, and could karate chop like no one's business. Take all that, add a dash of Marlowe, a little bit of James M. Cain, a sprinkle of V.I. Warshawski and a teaspoon of Sharon McCone and you get what the Tart Noir authors--Lauren Henderson, Stella Duffy, Chris Niles, and Katy Munger, to name a select few--have been doing for years.

Which was why when it was reported that Fielding's impetus for writing OLIVIA JOULES was because she couldn't find any light reading that struck her fancy, I wanted to slap her. Was she not looking terribly hard? Just get a copy of BLACK RUBBER DRESS or LEGWORK and see what a smart, sexy, sharp (and alliterative) heroine can do. These writers haven't taken any shortcuts; they've put together a melting pot of influences to come up with some seriously good stuff. Fielding, OTOH, seems to have opted for a shortcut. An anti-Bridget Jones? Well, Helen, you're late for your very own party, by several years.

Colgan, a romantic comedy writer who contributed to the aforementioned TART NOIR anthology, probably wasn't chosen to review OLIVIA JOULES by accident, considering her passionate defense of Chick Lit a few years ago. And she begins the review disclosing what a fan she is of Fielding and her previous books. But Colgan goes on to deliver the bottom line:

But poor old Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination doesn't work in the slightest. Actually, it never really has a chance. For some reason, Fielding's great gift of spot-on observation, of seeing the world more sharply than anyone else, whether in an African disaster centre or a north London wine bar, has been chucked out of the window in favour of what even her most fervent admirers would admit has never been her strongest point: plot. And boy, is there a lot of it.

As she goes on, it's obvious how Colgan is disappointed to come to this conclusion; Fielding was one of her heroes, someone whose penchant for sparkling satire paved the way for an entire subgenre (and backlash, to boot.) But something, indeed, is missing. Was it the rush to publication? Was it the emalgamation of many ideas that by all accounts, didn't quite come to fruition? Was it an attempt to try a "formula" that others are simply more successful at? Hard to say, of course. I'd like to read OLIVIA JOULES at some point so I can see for myself, but I'd also rather be reading authors who are writing the kinds of heroines I like to read about who are much more comfortable doing so.

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