Widow’s Peak or Valley?
Mad about (and, maybe, at) Ms. Jones (and Ms. Fielding)
On Dating, Pre-, Mid-, and Post-Darwinism
by Laura Zigman
In the winter of 1998, right before my first novel, Animal Husbandry, came out, a good friend mailed me a chunk of pages with a rubber band around it, and a note: Look! the note read. It’s the British version of AH! The note went on to say that the manuscript—Bridget Jones’s Diary — was already a huge bestseller in the UK, and that it was due to be published in the U.S. a few months after my novel. The minute I read the first page I was instantly hooked. I was also instantly depressed and filled with self-loathing. This was the most hilarious book I’d ever read. Why hadn’t I written a diary novel with cigarette- and calorie- and alcoholic-beverage counts starting every section, instead of a barely veiled screed about the mating rituals of bulls who wouldn’t commit and could never seem to keep their stupid pants on?
I was a recovering book publicist and a reluctant self-promoter, so pimping someone else’s brilliant book a few months later during the Q&A portions of my readings was easier than pimping my own. And besides: I was doing a public service. The landscape of love and romance wasn’t very loving or romantic, and women like me were lost and confused and kind of pissed off. We were desperate to understand the exquisite torture of being perpetually, and possibly eternally, single — the teary sorrow of blind dates and breakups; the smug pity from married friends; the spinster fear of parents who wondered, every Thanksgiving when they made up the sad little twin bed for their pathetic adult child, what they had done wrong. We were desperate to reconcile the loneliness and the panic and the silent egg-counting math with the brilliant flashes of freedom and independence and exuberant rebellion of flying solo, in a coupled world, with all our other single friends. But more than anything, we were desperate to feel like we weren’t freaks, like it wasn’t Just Us, like we weren’t the only ones who got dumped for no apparent reason and believed we were never, ever going to get over it.
This was before the Internet was in full swing, back when the only things that went viral were viruses, and before books like mine had their own genre. It was back when readers still asked me to explain “The Coolidge Effect” and Darwin’s ”grief muscles” and to tell them if the guy who dumped me really did skip the part about telling me he was dumping me (he did), or if I’d made that part up (I didn’t); back when they still asked me what had inspired me to write my book instead of asking me if I thought it was an insult to be called a chick lit writer. So when women raised their hands and told me their Old-Cow-New-Cow Stories, I told them about pathological narcissism and about the Myth of Male Shyness. I told them about chimps and bonobos and the monkey love of red-assed macaques and about the years I spent on my What Will Become of Me? couch in my tiny sensory-deprivation-tank apartment. And then I told them about the most hilarious book I’d ever read, which would be coming soon to a bookstore near them.
For me, the publication of Bridget Jones’s Diary fifteen years ago was proof of a collective consciousness: proof that women all over the world were going through the same thing at the same time, and proof that once the raw misery and pain of a bad breakup burned off, there was enormous potential for humor in it. Animal Husbandry wasn’t a copycat version of Bridget Jones’s Diary, as some trend reporters later wrote. It was a different version of the same story: Girl meets boy, boy dumps girl, girl writes book about it and makes other women — and herself — feel better by exposing her own dating idiocy and buffoonery. Fifteen years later, the publication of the equally hilarious Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy is proof that dating idiocy and buffoonery doesn’t stop when you’re in your thirties — it lives on and on, well after you’ve been married and divorced and dating again in your fifties.
Bridget Jones Discovers Botox
My, how v sad she’s grown
Of all the things I’ve read this year, the Girls-gone-geriatric satire that appeared in The New Yorker might have made me the giddiest. For those of you who missed “Ladies,” Patricia Marx’s depiction of the Lena Dunham gang as a pack of AARP members, here’s a sample:
Jessa: If you kick the bucket, can I get with your husband big time
Hannah: Jessa, Adam has been dead for years.
Jessa: So you’re saying that just because he’s dead, I can’t have sex with him?
Shoshonnah: Isn’t that, like, not anti-normal or something?
Marnie: Why does Jessa get to have sex with everyone when I’m the one with the new hip?
Though every poster girl for careless youth who makes it past menopause will end up in the land of hip replacements (and even It Girls move to the baby-wipe-strewn pastures of Park Slope), the Shouts & Murmurs piece made my day. Imagine how crazy I went when I learned that my number-one Girl would soon be returning as a fifty-one-year-old.
Helen Fielding, the Bridget Jones’s Diary creator who’d gone all but silent since the 2003 publication of her comic spy novel, Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination, was bringing one of my favorite characters back to life. Bridget Jones, the stream-of-consciousness diarizing, self-identifying “singleton” who’d married Mark Darcy when we last saw her, was now to be a mother of two, navigating the world of snooty school moms, Twitter, and whatever else comes with outgrowing the not entirely dignified business of being the heroine of a ’90s chick-lit novel (and its not-uncharming 2011 sequel).
Much as it pains me to say it, Bridget has aged about as well as a bottle of uncorked chardonnay. Her dreamy human-rights lawyer husband, Mark Darcy, died in a land-mine accident; her lovely father lost his battle with lung cancer; and that dashing boss, Daniel Cleaver, perfectly brought to life in the movie adaptation by Hugh Grant, is now a soft-jawed backup babysitter. But it’s a blow that goes unexplained in the narrative that has this fan the most distraught: Bridget appears to have lost her mind.
Witty, lovable promoter of justice, dispenser of witticisms, where have you gone? The girl who once swore off “emotional fuckwittage” and declared: “Hurrah! Singletons should not have to explain themselves all the time but should have an accepted status — like geisha girls,” is now dashing off diary entries like: “11:50 a.m. Oh, GOD. I REALLY want to go on a mini-break with someone and have sex” and “Oh, look, this is hopeless. Cannot just lie in bed MASTURBATING all day when have a screenplay to write and children to care for.”
Though she has two mini Darcys on her hands (the adorable Billy and Mabel), a screenplay in development (The Leaves in His Hair, an adaptation of Hedda Gabler), and more close friends than most of us ever did in our early twenties, our narrator is holed up in her fancy London house immersed in self-help books, obsessing over her born-again virginhood, and tweeting while intoxicated.
Her drunken tweets give the novel slightly more verisimilitude than do her Twitter exchanges with @Roxster, the 29-year-old eco-something-or-other who, like Bridget, is apparently unaware of the existence of direct messaging. The two charm each other with fart-joke tweets and banter about where they might meet up in person. Next thing we know, he is her “toy boy,” and she is throwing up on him. That is not a euphemism. “A night without vomit is a night without Jonesy,” Roxter tells her on one of their dates. (This endearment comes right after a meal where “I in turn wrapped my fingers round his thumb and stroked it up and down in a manner which just stopped on the right side of the line of being an advertisement for a hand job.”)
Which is not to say Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy doesn’t occasionally flash with that old Jones humor. I was delighted to see an early chapter titled “PLENTY OF FUCKWITS.” And when Bridget sent an e-mail to the perfect mom at school and absentmindedly addressed her as Nicorette (instead of by her real name, Nicolette), I was sure I’d caught a glimpse of my old friend.
The 1998 novel that started it all was disarmingly sharp, and swiftly plotted—a cheeky adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.Fielding packed the original confessional with brilliant neologisms and bursts of humor. Bridget Jones’s Diary sold more than sixteen million copies and revved up the chick-lit genre. It also reminded the world that silly could be smart. Without Bridget, it’s unlikely we would have had books like Allison Pearson’s busy-mom send-up, I Don’t Know How She Does It, or Lucinda Rosenfeld’s friendship farce, I’m So Happy For You.
Today’s Bridget has lost her way. She’s ignoring the demands of her job and seems to think it’s cute that she doesn’t know that Henrik Ibsen, not Chekhov, wrote the play on which she is basing her neglected screenplay. She spends an unfunny amount of time thinking about how celebrities dress at airports. If only she had simply failed to evolve. She’s regressed, and what with the Botox appointments, blow-out addiction, and fascination with the flesh of people born in the 1980s, she calls to mind a modern-day Rod Stewart more than she does any Austen heroine.
It’s possible the project was fantastically doomed. Perhaps even a funnier, less rambling, more Ab Fab-tastic (less puketastic) Bridget Jones 3 wouldn’t stand a chance today. Bridget made her debut before 9/11, when Sex and the City was hip and happening, and we would have likely raised our appletinis to a blog about a girl making 300 sandwiches for her boyfriend.
When our heroine finds herself at a joint birthday party, talking to a man who wonders out loud if she’s too old to be fixed up with anyone, she fights back: “I’ve had enough of this! What do you mean, ‘middle-aged’? In Jane Austen’s day we’d all be dead by now.”
It’s true—things could be worse for Jonesy.
But they’re still v sad.