Jennifer Weiner, “In Her Shoes”

Washington Square Press; http://books.simonandschuster.com/In-Her-Shoes/Jennifer-Weiner/9780743418201The bond between sisters can be a mystery to anyone outside the relationship. The shrill fights, the slapping, the name calling in girlhood. Then the quick evolution to best friends with requisite phone calls, jokes and secrets. But as close as two sisters can be, dregs of the antagonism from childhood can still rub the connection raw. Support for one another can devolve into jealousy and resentment, and a friendship can be tenuous at best. Such is the relationship between Rose Feller and her sister, Maggie. One is responsible, stable, plain. The other, fun, beautiful and foolish. Together, their dynamic is complex, tense and unstable – especially when a man is involved.

Plot Overview: Jealousy, Dysfunction and Sisters

After their mother’s death, Rose and Maggie, as children, grew in opposite directions. Rose, plump and practical, devoted herself to schoolwork and became a lawyer, though her life (and wardrobe) is drab and dull; her only indulgence is a beautiful collection of designer shoes. Maggie, on the other hand, became a party girl, overcompensating for her dyslexia and an inability to commit.

After Maggie loses yet another job and is evicted, she shows up on Rose’s doorstep. Rose reluctantly lets her in and tolerates Maggie’s raids into her closet (they share the same shoe size) and messy housekeeping. The final straw, however, comes when Maggie seduces Rose’s long-time crush. Rose kicks her out and curls up to lick her emotional wounds.

Maggie, at loose ends, discovers that she has a grandmother, Ella Hirsch, living in Florida. Ella had tried to reach out to her granddaughters, had written letters, but Maggie and Rose’s father kept them hidden after his wife’s death. Curious – and having nowhere else to go – Maggie seeks out her long-lost grandparent.

While Maggie and Ella formulate a plan to earn Rose’s forgiveness, Rose finds herself a little lost as well. She takes a sabbatical from work to focus on her new career, dog walking, and inadvertently starts a new relationship. Although the sisters’ lives are carrying on, both feel a little empty without the other. Honesty (and a reunion) may be the only remedy for their broken friendship.

Criticisms and Compliments

Although In Her Shoes is considered to be chick lit – and it certainly has its humorous moments – it also has a certain melancholic tone (e.g. Rose and Maggie’s mother’s tragic death, the lack of a connection they’re allowed with their father due to their stepmonster, Sydelle’s, intrusion, their arguing over men and ambitions). It seems, with these two, there is always an undercurrent of envy. It is just a little bit sad, especially for a reader who is close with her sister. No relationship is ever all roses and light, but sisters have a special bond, one worth preserving.

While the book is a wonderful read, the movie, In Her Shoes, starring Toni Collette, Cameron Diaz and Shirley Maclaine, is not quite as satisfying. It’s not as funny, not as poignant, but credit must be given to the talented cast. It’s a well-acted, nicely paced film that respects a nicely paced novel. Read In Her Shoes first, as usual, then watch the movie.

Source:

  • Weiner, Jennifer. In Her Shoes. Washington Square Press (Reprint edition), 2003 ISBN 9780743418201

Curtis Sittenfeld, “The Man of My Dreams”

Random House; http://www.randomhouse.com/book/168072/the-man-of-my-dreams-by-curtis-sittenfeldThere are some who prefer to stand on the edges of life, to study others, noting their behaviors, their skills, their smiles. Hannah Gravener is such a person. She’s an introvert, a quiet personality who prefers to remain on the sidelines in the game of life rather than be an active player. More often than not, she spends time in her own company, eating junk food and going to bed early, than with others. But she’s also a girl who dreams of love, of companionship. The issue is, can she reconcile who she has let herself become versus who she wants to be?

Plot Overview: Family, Divorce and Self-Acceptance

In 1991 Hannah, the younger of two daughters, is sent from her home in Philadelphia to live with her aunt in Pittsburgh. Hannah’s own father, volatile and emotionally abusive, had kicked his wife and daughters out; Hannah’s mother and sister went to live with another aunt. Content with her Aunt Elizabeth, Hannah is exposed to a healthy relationship between spouses, though her tense childhood remains with her.

In the late ‘90s, Hannah has graduated to loner college student at Tufts University. She struggles to make friends, to even force herself out of her lonely routine to go out with Jenny, the one potential friend she has. After a disastrous night of partying, Hannah makes an appointment with Dr. Lewin, a psychologist who becomes her one consistent relationship throughout her twenties.

As Hannah matures, she finds herself questioning love and men. If there is a man who loves her too much, there’s another who doesn’t love her enough. And then there’s Henry, her crush, her soul mate. And her cousin, Fig’s, boyfriend.

Criticisms and Compliments

Read alone, The Man of My Dreams is an insightful story that shines a light on every person’s virtues and flaws. Everyone has some aspect of ugliness in them, a fact that Sittenfeld understands. It’s refreshing, really, to read a novel that doesn’t detail the life of some perfect-seeming protagonist, a woman who is beautiful but clumsy, smart but bumbling, funny yet wry. In this sense, The Man of My Dreams excels. When compared to Sittenfeld’s debut, Prep, however, it doesn’t quite match the level of quality.

The possible problem with The Man of My Dreams is the detached manner of Sittenfeld’s narrative. Hannah’s story is told entirely in third person, but not in such a way that it would have been impossible to have been in first person. The spotlight is focused solely on Hannah’s feelings and observations, not anyone else’s. Why, then, did Sittenfeld choose third person? Perhaps as a way to echo Hannah’s own detachment from the world, her own role as an outsider and an observer? It’s only when reading the final chapter, written as a letter from Hannah to Dr. Lewin, that the reader finally gets a glimpse into Hannah’s world view. The contrast in quality, the depth that appears in the final chapter (which, appropriately, doesn’t end on a happily-ever-after note) makes the reader wonder if The Man of My Dreams could have equaled the runaway success of Prep if Sittenfeld had written with a more intimate tone.

Still, The Man of My Dreams is a well-written novel that follows the similar narrative style of Jennifer Close’s Girls in White Dresses. Read it, but enjoy it on its own, not as a comparison to Prep.

Source:

  • Sittenfeld, Curtis. The Man of My Dreams. Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2007 (Reprint edition) ISBN 9780812975390

Curtis Sittenfeld, “Prep”

Random House; http://www.randomhouse.com/book/168071/prep-by-curtis-sittenfeldHigh school. For some (the jocks, the homecoming queen, the popular kids), it is four years of partying and friends and fun. For others (the nerds, the outcasts, the unpopular kids and the untouchables), it is four years of pure, unadulterated torture. The line drawn between the two groups is thick and impassable. There is, however, a fringe group, a collection of individuals that doesn’t fit in either of the two established sides. They are the loners, the murky gray of high school; they’re neither ugly nor pretty, rich nor poor, smart nor stupid. They are not dorky or weird or quirky enough to be unpopular, but neither are they trendy or clever or stunning enough to be popular. They are the observers, the clock-watchers, the outsiders. Lee Fiora, though a budding social climber, is one of these students.

Plot Overview: Loneliness, Teen Angst and Immaturity

Lee Fiora is not a typical Ault School student. She attends the posh boarding school on a scholarship, her family is from South Bend, Indiana, and she does not wear designer clothing or vacation in the Hamptons. But she desperately wants to be one of the cool kids, those with charisma and a polish and shine that only the truly wealthy possess.

In her four years at Ault, Lee becomes more self-aware, more fearful and more drawn to popularity. A minor issue can become magnified during teen years, especially by those prone to overanalyzing, and Lee’s interactions with those around her are no exception. She is on the periphery of the social scene, though she tries hard to elbow her way in.

As Lee becomes more enmeshed in the social standards of Ault, she becomes precisely the type of person that her family would despise. She’s snobbish and judgmental, and she treats others the way the more popular students treat her. She might never gain their acceptance – and her relationships with them, especially with Cross Sugarman, might never become public – but she’s willing to try.

Criticisms and Compliments

Prep, Sittenfeld’s debut novel, is contemplative, relatively well-written and angsty. It also leaves an odd taste in the reader’s mouth. Maybe because Lee isn’t the most likeable or respectable protagonist. Maybe because her life is ambiguously dissatisfying. Or maybe because it forces the reader to reflect on his or her own negative high school experiences. Whatever the case, Prep is an unsettling read.

Lee is so easily seduced by the private school image that she is completely unprepared for life with the rich and beautiful. Money determines everything, and as a scholarship student, she is on a lower tier than her classmates; she is a second-class citizen, whether she likes it or not. What makes Prep more uncomfortable, though, is Lee’s refusal to accept that her family’s socioeconomic status determined her place at Ault. Rather than make the best of her situation, she becomes deeply ashamed of her parents and her roots, and she morphs into the most dreaded of people: the needy social climber.

If anything, Lee’s experience is a lesson: a person’s self-worth should not be based on what he or she has or whom he or she knows. It is based on who a person is at heart. But in Prep, Lee’s heart is fickle and unforgiving, much like the higher social strata to which she aspires. Read this one with caution.

Source:

  • Sittenfeld, Curtis. Prep. Random House, 2005 ISBN 9780812972351

Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, “The Nanny Diaries”

Cover photo, Andrew Eccles/TWC 2007; http://us.macmillan.com/thenannydiaries/EmmaMclaughlinThere appears to be a new breed of parent-child clients for nannies. Perhaps the new millennium ushered in new priorities, new methods of parenting, new requirements for caregivers. Out are the Kraft-type foods of the ‘90s – macaroni and cheese, fish sticks, frozen pot pies, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Little Debbie cakes – and in are the organic snacks, raw vegetables, foods without dyes or sugar or fat or preservatives. Gone are the carefree afternoons once the school bell has run, where kids have a snack of an apple or chocolate chip cookie and then race around outside; instead, afternoons are programmed with language classes, dance classes, music lessons. This evolution isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but is it that great, either?

Plot Overview: Denial, Romance and Motherhood

Nanny is a student at NYU, and like most students, is struggling to cover all of her expenses. She needs only something that will help her pay the rent on her tiny studio apartment and allow her to take some child-development classes. By a stroke of luck, Nan finds a woman, Mrs. X, who needs a nanny. It seems like the perfect solution.

Mrs. X, however, is the most formidable employer that Nan might ever face. She’s treats Nan as if she’s invisible or beneath her, sends her out on countless errands and rarely remembers to pay her. Grayer, Nanny’s charge, isn’t much better. He desperately misses his old nanny, and he is reluctant to form a bond with another woman who might just abandon him – like his own mother.

Nanny, both intrigued and frustrated by the complex dynamics of the dysfunctional X home, forces herself to stick with the job. The only bright spot, aside from her growing bond with Grayer, is the cute Ivy League grad who lives in the X’s posh Park Avenue building. When Mr. X, however, pushes his wife a touch too far with his unexplained absences, his affairs, his loyalty to his job rather than to his family, Nanny begins to catch a glimpse of the woman behind the carefully-placed and fashionable façade. Perhaps the X family is worth saving. Maybe this job – despite its humiliations, its cruelties, its defeats – is actually worthwhile.

Criticisms and Compliments

Like Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada, The Nanny Diaries is an almost voyeuristic look into the lives of the rich and powerful in New York City. In the case of the Nanny Diaries, the city is a place where the wealthy are too busy, too pampered to clean, cook, do laundry and take care of their children. Enter the nanny. She is a complex woman, one who must negotiate a balance between allowing herself to be treated like a slave and asserting herself as an independent, nurturing caregiver. As with happens with inconsiderate ladies who lunch, the nanny is more often overlooked or forgotten. Having to care for spoiled children (with little authority) adds that little something extra to what is arguably one of the most difficult jobs in the world.

It would be nice to think that all mothers are thoughtful enough to give explicit directions, clear expectations and fair, prompt compensation. Those mothers, unfortunately, can be a rare breed, though they are certainly not extinct; there are many wonderful mothers out there, but the few bad apples tend to skew perceptions. (Brief personal anecdote: even in my small city, I had a mother pay me for several hours of babysitting her daughters with a few dollars and a handful of Starbursts. Yup.) Mrs. X., being one of the former mothers, is insensitive and forgetful and neglectful of her son, yet she is still painted as vulnerable. Credit, therefore, must go to McLaughlin and Kraus, who, through their own experiences as nannies, still have the heart to see that all women – despite their fancy trappings – can be tender creatures.

The Nanny Diaries, while painfully funny at times, is an entertaining read, especially for any former (or current) nannies. The movie, as well, is good, though Scarlett Johansson is a bit of an odd pick for Nanny; she usually doesn’t play the gauche, somewhat unattractive and accident-prone comedienne (Prime example: Nan wears white ankle socks with black kitten heels and skirt suit to a job interview – yikes). Enjoy this read and the movie!

Lauren Weisberger, “The Devil Wears Prada”

Broadway Books; http://www.randomhouse.com/book/188221/the-devil-wears-prada-by-lauren-weisbergerWriters can be snobby creatures. They have lofty goals, even loftier opinions, and few “serious” writers would deign to write for an inconsequential publication. Andrea Sachs, though slightly less snobby than the cliché, believes herself to be a serious écrivain. She dreams of working for The New Yorker, of crafting smart pieces for a bright audience. Instead, the fashion-backwards, Brown-educated auteur lands a job at Runway, a Vogue-like magazine. Forced to place her plans and ambition on hold, she must suffer as a junior assistant position for a formidable editor. Of course, it could always be good fodder for a novel, no?

Plot Overview: Fashion, Expectations and Disappointment

Andy is the quintessential small-town girl with big-city dreams. She grew up in Connecticut, more concerned about her grades than her wardrobe (which usually consisted of sweatpants). When she matriculated to Brown, fashion was still far from her reality. It was only when she landed in New York City, crashing on her best friend Lily’s couch and searching for a job, that her sheltered, gray life began needed some color. Desperate, she spent days shopping around her resume and hoping for her big break.

Little did the wannabe writer realize that her break would come at the hands of Runway magazine. Andy is woefully unaware of the rigors and stress of working at a fashion magazine, and she is reluctant to take the job. She has few choices at the moment, though, and if she works as Miranda Priestly’s junior assistant for a year, she can have her pick of publications.

Miranda Priestly, unfortunately, is practically the devil incarnate. Her behavior borders on abusive, and she thrives on sending Andy and Emily, her other assistant, out on impossible tasks. As Andy struggles through the year, her job begins to eclipse her life. Lily is edging closer and closer to alcoholism, and Andy’s boyfriend, Alex, is about fed up with his girlfriend. For her part, Andy becomes more dazzled with the glamorous magazine life, and she is slowly drawn to up-and-coming writer Christian like a moth to a flame.

It seems Runway and Miranda have the power to make or break Andy’s life; her job will either destroy her personally or make her career soar.

Criticisms and Compliments

The Devil Wears Prada was the subject of considerable buzz after it became a runaway bestseller and was optioned for a movie starring Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep. The movie itself was a showpiece of fashion and cruelty, and Streep rightfully earned accolades for her portrayal of the despotic editor. Now, The Devil Wears Prada is beginning to hum again as Weisberger’s sequel, Revenge Wears Prada: The Devil Returns was released earlier this month. The only problem with all of this buzz? The original story isn’t really that great.

Maybe chick-lit fans would contest that The Devil Wears Prada is a great read and is supposed to be fluffy, fun fiction. But the problem with The Devil Wears Prada is not that it’s light; it’s the characters. Andy is not a well-developed protagonist. Yes, Miranda puts her through hell and back (the only entertaining part of the novel), but Andy digs in her heels and practically refuses to learn anything from her experience. One year as a junior assistant at a fashion magazine is a very short time in her life. And despite however many times she hears it, yes, a million girls would die for her job. It’s an opportunity that few fledgling magazine journalists could have, and Andy only has to stick it for a mere 12 months before she can have her pick of publications. Essentially, this immature girl has won the magazine lottery, and she tosses it away. It’s frustrating and infuriating to read.

Although the novel was written almost 10 years ago, Andy epitomizes today’s stereotypical entitled graduate. Welcome to the real world! It’s not all roses, and believe it or not, most people have to start at the bottom in order to reach the top. What’s even more disappointing, however, is that in the sequel, it appears Andy has continued to learn absolutely nothing, and she’s even abandoned her fiction writing career. Where’s the responsibility and ambition? Why is she even worth reading about if she’s so underdeveloped and selfish? The only person actually worth reading about is Miranda; now she – complex, malicious, vindictive – must have an interesting backstory. Maybe Weisberger can focus entirely on Miranda in her next novel.

The Devil Wears Prada is materialism and narcissism at its best and its worst. The book is not a terrible read; it’s just not terrific. See the movie instead.

Source:

  • Weisberger, Lauren. The Devil Wears Prada. Broadway Books, 2004 ISBN 9780767914765

Marian Keyes, “Sushi for Beginners”

HarperCollins; http://www.harpercollins.com/books/Sushi-for-Beginners-Marian-Keyes?isbn=9780060555955&HCHP=TB_Sushi+for+Beginners It’s a common problem. Bridget Jones remarked on it. Most people have experienced it. When one part of life is going really well, another part falls spectacularly apart. Professionally, a person could be doing fantastic work, making money, feeling good. But her personal life is in shambles. She’s single. Again. And afraid to look for what she might – or might not – find in the murky world of dating. For Lisa, Ashling and Clodagh, women who ostensibly don’t “have it all,” total happiness eludes them. One part of their lives is chugging along; the other is stalled. It seems only time, humor and a heaping helping of humble pie can tip the balances in favor of love and satisfaction.

Plot Overview: Glitz, Glamour and Girls

Ashling Kennedy is the consummate best friend. She is prepared for every disaster with a Mary-Poppin’s-like cavernous bag, she has a tendency to worry, she is loyal and needy and lacking in self-esteem. And she’s single, though she wouldn’t mind having a loving and faithful boyfriend. But for now, Ashling is a girl with a big heart – and maybe even a bigger body – who works as an assistant at fledging magazine “Colleen.”

Lisa Edwards is the polar opposite of her assistant, Ashling. Lisa is the high-powered new editor of “Colleen,” though she views her move from London to Dublin as a demotion. She is slim and svelte and gorgeous, and she maintains such high standards that a normal person – her employees, her ex-husband – can only fall far short. The unpleasant Type-A personality is loath to work at the Irish mag, but ruggedly handsome and cranky editor-in-chief Jack Devine might be her perfect complement. Might be.

At first glance, Clodagh really does have it all. A handsome husband who brings home the big bucks, two lovely children, a beautiful home. But Clodagh fights persistent unhappiness and boredom. There is no passion in suburbia and in motherhood, and the young, flighty woman is desperate for something. Drama. Excitement. An affair.

Criticisms and Compliments

Keyes is the undisputed queen of chick-lit (Sophie Kinsella is a close runner-up; perhaps the “princess” of chick-lit). Keyes typically channels a variety of young, struggling twenty and thirty-somethings, many of whom have professional lives that any other woman would envy. Case in point: the workers at “Colleen” have the luxury of not only working for a glamorous women’s magazine, but they are also spearheading a new publication. Quite an opportunity. But where Keyes would normally tackle a mainstream issue (abuse, rape, suicide, alcoholism), such a topic seems to be missing – or at least not as obvious – in Sushi for Beginners. Rather, this frothy novel looks at the superficial, the surface of a woman’s relationship with her partner, her lover, her friend and her husband. Essentially, no single relationship in perfect; boredom or dissatisfaction inevitably set in, and infidelity is almost a guarantee, but love is worth the fight. Or so it would seem.

The problem with Sushi for Beginners, aside from its lagging first few chapters, is the general unlikeability and stereotypical personalities of the characters. Lisa is just not a sympathetic character; her situation is sympathetic – aside from her “promotion” of sorts to Dublin (who wouldn’t want that?) – but her nasty attitude overpowers her vulnerability. She is, in plain speak, a bitch. Likewise, Clodagh is selfish and insensitive, a woman who could have it all, but still isn’t happy. So what does she do? Turn to what her best friend has and take that. She might be sorry, but not sorry enough to give it back. And Ashling, the only likeable character in the novel, is too much of a chick-lit stereotype: clumsy, bumbling, overweight, single. In true Keyes fashion, however, each character does wind up with her deserved ending – happy or not – which can be immensely satisfying. Still, Sushi for Beginner’s leaves something to be desired.

Sushi for Beginners is certainly not a bad novel; it’s well written and funny and evokes the glamorous world of magazines (not unlike Tasmina Perry’s Daddy’s Girls), but the pacing and the characters bring it down a notch. The Other Side of the Story, The Brightest Star in the Sky and This Charming Man are better reads.

Source:

  • Keyes, Marian. Sushi for Beginners: A Novel. William Morrow Paperbacks (Reprint edition), 2005 ISBN 9780060555955

Jennifer Weiner, “Goodnight Nobody”

Washington Square Press; http://books.simonandschuster.com/Goodnight-Nobody/Jennifer-Weiner/9780743470124The city versus the suburbs. Singledom versus married life. Freedom versus motherhood. Every woman makes her choices, either deliberately or not. Some might be thrilled to find themselves professionally successful, financially sound and happily single in their 30s. Others, however, find themselves cleaning up dirty diapers, chasing the uppity moms of the most popular stay-at-home clique and reducing their intellectual challenges to repeated games of Candy Land. Kate Klein is one of those mothers. And she has no idea how she ended up in Upchurch, Connecticut, bored, frustrated and contemplating a different life.

Plot Overview: Suburbia, Secrets and Boredom

After being mugged, Kate and her workaholic husband, Ben, uproot their family of five from the bustling streets of New York City to move to quiet, serene Upchurch. But behind the glossy front doors and beneath the perfectly coiffed hair of the ladies who lunch lie secrets. Kate, rumpled, clumsy and always with a mussed ‘do, is eventually invited into the  group – only to find her hostess, Kitty Cavanaugh, murdered. Stabbed in the back with a kitchen knife.

The suburb is shocked at the murder, outraged that such a safe place could be home to a maniacal killer. But Kate, bored and lonely and desperate for purpose, is intrigued. She takes it upon herself to investigate the death of Kitty and to unearth all the secrets of the WASP-y clan in Upchurch. Of course, she can only ferret out the murderer on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings (when her children are in school), but a lack of time won’t stop the determined mother.

Complicating matters is Evan McKenna, an old boyfriend whom Kate never got over. With her own marriage on the rocks, Kate finds herself drawn closer to the man of the past, a man who reminds her of better times, freer times, happier times. But is she willing to sacrifice the family for whom she has worked so hard? Could she end up just like Kitty, stabbed in the back in her own shiny, remodeled kitchen?

Criticisms and Compliments

Jennifer Weiner is an excellent story teller, and her novels have wide appeal to female readers, all of whom dream of being accepted and loved for exactly who they are and what they look like. It is fantasy fiction at its best. However, while Weiner’s other hits (In Her Shoes, Good in Bed, Best Friends Forever) are nostalgic, tug-at-the-heartstrings chick lit, Goodnight Nobody is Weiner’s first venture outside of the frothy romance box. Unfortunately, the mystery of Goodnight Nobody isn’t as exciting or intriguing as it could be. Instead, Weiner vacillates between her protagonist’s personal life and emotional struggles and the superficial backgrounds of suburbia’s most powerful: the housewives. While it isn’t unusual for authors to include vulnerable elements of their primary detectives, the mystery generally takes a priority. In Goodnight Nobody, boredom and dissatisfaction do.

Despite its lackluster plot, Goodnight Nobody can still be enjoyed if just for Weiner’s writing style and humor. Sophie, Kate’s daughter, is wry and sarcastic, and Kate is a bumbling, endearing mom who just can’t fit in. That said, the ending and the lack of a conclusion, of closure or any type of resolution between Kate, her husband and her former lover is disappointing. Goodnight Nobody is a book to be read for the wit, for the depictions of the ridiculous and now archetypal stay-at-home moms and for the untangling of a miserable life – but just as the reader believes Weiner will neatly tie up her plot, the story ends. Abruptly.

Better stick with Weiner’s other hits and save this one for later.

Source:

  • Weiner, Jennifer. Goodnight Nobody. Washington Square Press, 2006 ISBN 9780743470124

Katie MacAlister, “The Corset Diaries”

Onyx; http://www.us.penguingroup.com/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9780451411129,00.html?The_Corset_Diaries_Katie_MacAlisterAs reality television has evolved over the years, a typical female star has come to possess some (or all) of the following: bleach blond hair, sun-kissed skin, a lithe but sexy figure, a cosmetically enhanced visage, a narcissistic personality, a flair for drama and a love of fame. Pleasantly plump bookworm Tessa Riordan is far from such a woman. But when a friend encourages her to participate in a reality television program, she is reluctant, fearful – and intrigued. The lure of the spotlight, as so many men and women have fallen prey to, draws the cheerful gal in, and she manages to clumsily charm her way into the hearts of the viewers. And into the arms of the man cast as her husband.

Plot Overview: Love, Lust and Reality T.V.

At 39 years old, Tessa is a widow, a size 18 and a struggling genealogist. Not the ideal life. So when opportunity arrives in the form of a reality show à la PBS’s “1900s House,” Tessa decides she has nothing to lose. Except maybe a few pounds.

The show, which chronicles life in the late 1800s, is made up of actors and wannabes; Tessa’s role is the duchess of the household, a pampered and relatively easy position. She is tied (and tortured) into a corset every day but spends most of her time wandering the English countryside and awkwardly dining with her conservative “neighbors” (read: inexperienced but eager actors). The real plus, however, is Max Edgerton, the British architect playing the Duke.

Max is reticent and standoffish, but Tessa’s good-natured ways begin to smooth his rough edges. The two embark on a steamy affair behind the camera, and Tessa is only too happy to cater to Max’s needs. Complicating matters, however, are the other members of the production. Max’s daughter and in-laws are part of the cast – and deeply disapproving of Tessa – and the actors assigned to servant positions are about to rebel. What should have been a clandestine affair on a staid television show is instead a messy coupling on a hilarious, drama-filled disaster.

Criticisms and Compliments

Katie MacAlister is a hit-or-miss writer. Some of her novels (the Aisling Grey series) are excellent. The protagonists are well-rounded, the romances are hot, the dialogue is witty. But no writer is perfect, and MacAlister has missed the mark before (Men in Kilts, Improper English); her plotting can be superficial, and the female protagonists, rather than appearing clever and charismatic, are overly emotional and just plain not likeable. That said, The Corset Diaries is not only a hit, but also one of her best. Tessa is vulnerable and kind, Max is flawed but loving, and the romance has enough depth to allow the lovebirds to grow. Plus, the plot is laugh-out-loud funny.

In her more successful writing, like The Corset Diaries, MacAlister tends to channel Jennifer Weiner and Sophie Kinsella. Like many of Weiner’s protagonists, Tessa Riordan is overweight and aware of it, but she manages to find a man who loves for who she is, regardless of her size. And like Kinsella’s heroines, Tessa acts with good intentions, but those well-meaning actions constantly land in her cringe-worthy but entertaining situations. The plump protagonist plus the situational comedy makes for a great read. It’s a formula that works.

Finally, MacAlister has the ability to tap into fantasies in which to set her characters and plot: The Corset Diaries explores not only romance on a television show, but also during a seemingly idyllic historical period; A Hard Day’s Knight, another great read, looks at love and lust at a jousting tournament at the Renaissance fair; and the Dark Ones series focuses on seductive vampires and powerful magic. Her collection (of hits) is funny and sexy fare that’s fluffy enough to be light reading.

Source:

  • MacAlister, Katie. The Corset Diaries. Onyx (Reprint edition), 2004 ISBN 9780451411129

Trisha Ashley, “Chocolate Wishes”

Within the warmth of her cottage confectionery, Chloe Lyon dispenses rich chocolate goodies with a heaping side of wisdom. The thirtysomething chocolatier creates molds of angels, and like fortune cookies, each angel comes with a strip of paper inside with an insightful phrase about life and love.  Chronically single Chloe, however, resists temptation and wisdom and is disinclined to match up with a man. But when her ex-boyfriend, a rock star turned small-town vicar, arrives in town, Chloe’s calm life begins to bubble over and burn. A sugary treat of chick lit, Chocolate Wishes is as indulgent a read as a bar of Hershey’s. Just as sweet, but too much of it might create a toothache.

Plot Overview: Sweetness, Sugar and Love

Chloe Lyon and her half-brother, Jake, live with their warlock grandfather, Grumps, and pseudo-aunt, Zillah, after being abandoned by their mother. The four putter around a large house well enough, but when Grumps purchases a house in Sticklepond – complete with a quaint cottage for Chloe’s chocolate shop, “Chocolate Wishes” – they pack up and move to small-town Britain.

Chloe, thrilled with her cottage and being closer to her friends, quickly settles in. She regularly meets up with Poppy and Felix, both single and looking, at the neighborhood pub and is entertained by the petty drama of village ladies. Her grandfather likewise adjusts to the town, completing his novel, “Satan’s Child,” and assembling a coven of septuagenarians. Jake meets a girl, which is all a teenage boy really needs.

Having been left at the altar, Chloe has sworn off love. She would rather maintain her distance from the complicating emotion, preferring to be a spectator than an active participant. She gleefully watches Poppy and Felix fall in love, but when it comes to herself, she is emotionally unavailable and happily alone. Or so she tells herself when Raffy Sinclair, former lead singer of “Mortal Ruin” and Chloe’s college boyfriend, turns up in Sticklepond. Good thing chocolate cures all of life’s problems.

Criticisms and Compliments

Chocolate Wishes, when read as fluffy chick lit, is a delight. It is light and charming and warms the reader just like a steaming mug of Chloe’s hot chocolate – at least until the sweet drink, or the plot, cools. The pacing is slow, and the relationship between Chloe and her love interest, Raffy, is dull. Where Trisha Ashley excels, however, is in her character development. The quirky villagers of Sticklepond are unique and entertaining, and the hijinks of small-town marms with too much time, too little to do and too much to gossip about are hilarious. Grumps and Zillah are eccentric and endearing, and Poppy and Felix are what friends should be: supportive, fun and not without problems that Chloe, in all her wisdom, can remedy.

The idea behind Chloe’s success – her chocolate angels that dispense various bits of wisdom – is fantastic. It’s a shame that they don’t exist in real life. The idea of the magical and mystical adds a little sparkle to Chocolate Wishes, but for readers who prefer their novels more realistic, this book may not be the best choice. In Chocolate Wishes, it is the chocolate that sells, not the romance. Still, Chocolate Wishes is comforting chick lit, perfect for those looking for an easy read.

Source:

  • Ashley, Trisha. Chocolate Wishes. Avon, 2010 ISBN 9781847561144

Melanie Gideon, “Wife 22″

Alice Buckle is a typical middle-age woman raising teenagers, working part-time, trying to communicate and keep the romance alive with her husband, William. But as the distance grows between the long-married couple, Alice impulsively agrees to participate in an online survey of marital happiness. What happens next, her dissection of her marriage, her relationship with “Researcher 101,” unemployment, serves to derail the superficial happiness of her life.

Plot Overview: Technology, Middle Age and Marriage

Alice Buckle is quirky. She’s a former playwright who debuted and crashed miserably in the same night and who now works as a drama teacher at a local elementary school. Her son, Peter, with whom she shares a special bond, might be gay, though Alice is determined to make coming out as gentle as possible for him. Her daughter, Zoe, 15, is a typical teenager who is hugely embarrassed by her mother and who hoards secrets like forbidden snack cakes.

After a Google search, many of which include looking up “drooping eyelid” and “happy family,” Alice receives spam mail offering her the chance to participate in a study on marital satisfaction. For $1000, she need only answer questions about her family, her life and her marriage and communicate anonymously with the researcher who analyzes her responses. Alice agrees.

When William is demoted and then fired from his advertising job, Alice feels like the bottom has fallen out of her world. Why did her husband never confide in her? Why didn’t she know there were problems at work? Instead of speaking directly to William, she turns to her best friend, power lesbian lawyer Nedra, and Researcher 101, an enigmatic man who knows all the right things to say.

When Caroline, the daughter of Alice’s producer from her one-hit-not play, comes to live with them, Alice welcomes the extra presence in her life, a buffer between her and William. Her relationships with her children and her best friend slowly start to unravel, just as Alice becomes more addicted to her online interactions with Researcher 101. The question is, who is Researcher 101, and what is Alice going to do about her marriage? How can she keep everybody – including herself – happy?

Criticisms and Compliments

Wife 22 is, hands down, one of the most entertaining books of 2012. Alice is built on past well-known chick-lit heroines, especially Bridget Jones, but she is not endearing by being a bumbling, clumsy, ditzy gal. Rather, she is creative and bright and tech-savvy, and she has a wicked sense of humor. Her anecdotes, written as “Wife 22” to “Researcher 101,” are laugh-out-loud funny. For example,

“After I saw [‘Nine ½ Weeks’] I bought a garter belt and stockings. I wore them for a few days, feeling very sexy, until I experienced a garter malfunction. Have you ever had a stocking suddenly pool around your ankle while you’re in the process of boarding a bus? There is no quicker path to feeling like an old lady” (pages 389-390).

Wife 22 is a delightful book, though it does play a little heavily on marriage being a catch 22; as author Melanie Gideon points out, the traits that once attracted a person to his or her spouse are those same traits that drive him or her crazy twenty years later. Luckily, as is typical with chick lit, a happy ending is reached for all: Alice, William, Zoe, Peter, Caroline, Nedra and Phil, Alice’s father. Wife 22 is the perfect “happy read,” and Alice Buckle is the perfect go-to girl for laughs, comfort and a little nurturing.

Source:

  • Gideon, Melanie. Wife 22: A Novel. Ballantine Books, 2012 ISBN 9780345527950