Is there a more tempting target for caricature than the thirtyish single woman of the '90s?
By Linda Lowenthal
JULY 13, 1998:
BRIDGET JONES'S DIARY, by Helen Fielding. Viking, 271 pages, $22.95.
I once had a boyfriend who was so literal-minded, and so convinced women were a foreign species, that he actually read Cosmopolitan for research purposes. Needless to say, his anthropological studies didn't get him very far. But as galling as it was that he thought "Aha! Cosmo girl!" every time I bought a pair of shoes, it kept my secrets pretty safe.
It's a good thing he didn't read Bridget Jones's Diary, because Bridget is a self-confessed "child of Cosmopolitan culture," and she's a lot harder to disavow. Bridget Jones, who has already taken England and Europe by storm, is the alter ego that the British writer Helen Fielding created for a column in the Independent in 1995. Impulsive, disorganized, and determined to mend her ways, she starts each diary entry with a ruthless, if somewhat random, self-assessment: "126 lbs. (excellent), alcohol units 0, cigarettes 29 (v.v. bad, esp. in 2 hours), calories 3879 (repulsive), negative thoughts 942 (approx. based on av. per minute), minutes spent calculating negative thoughts 127 (approx.)." Her days are an obstacle course of snares and indignities. She can't find an unripped pair of hose in time for work; she gets trapped half-naked in communal changing rooms; she can't restrain herself from flirting with her rakish boss even though her Rules-influenced pals counsel her to remain a "cool, unavailable ice queen."
Bridget's "Smug Married" friends invite her to dinner and demand to know why she hasn't found a boyfriend yet, infuriating her even as they tap into her deep-seated fear of dying alone and being found weeks later, half-eaten by a dog. When she has them over in turn, her effortlessly chic menus somehow devolve into omelets and marmalade. Meanwhile, she must cope with a family emergency precipitated by the midlife crisis of her cheerfully, implacably dreadful mother. (Mum on Bridget's drably colored wardrobe: "Nobody wants a girlfriend who wanders round looking like someone from Auschwitz, darling.") And a rich, divorced lawyer named Mark Darcy keeps popping up at the most inconvenient moments. (The screwball plot is notable mainly as a series of riffs on Pride and Prejudice -- a conceit that's irresistible even though Clueless did the airhead Jane Austen thing first.)
Bridget's scatterbrained obsessiveness may be exaggerated, and her slapstick mishaps are surely over the top. Still, their basic contours feel awfully familiar, especially when Fielding forgoes the easy laughs to touch on the subtle weirdness of being alone. Bridget is stymied by a sunny Sunday: "Whatever I am doing I really think I ought to be doing something else. . . . The more the sun shines the more obvious it seems that others are making fuller, better use of it elsewhere: possibly at some giant softball game to which everyone is invited except me." Instead of dispatching the man who wants to "sleep with her whenever he [feels] like it but not be her boyfriend," she wavers against temptation to the point that when he comes around, she scarcely knows what to do. "Completely weird evening," she notes after that triumphant day. "Realized that our entire relationship so far has been based on the idea that one or other of us is supposed to be resisting having sex. Spending an evening together when the idea was that we were supposed to have sex at the end of it was nothing short of bizarre."
Plenty of contemporary writers try to elicit these giggly twinges of recognition: Laura Zigman (Animal Husbandry) and Valerie Block (Was It Something I Said?) are two who have aimed for the same nerve this year alone. But such books are often suffused with a brittle, desperate quality that makes them more depressing than satisfying -- reading them can feel like looking in the mirror and seeing actual wrinkles when you thought you were just tired. They make you think: "Is it that bad? Am I really supposed to be that bitter and used-up already?" For Bridget, though, male-bashing and despair function mainly as an almost cheerful form of catharsis. What might look like bitterness or whining is leavened not just by her wit but, curiously, by her very self-deprecation: she doesn't blame men or anyone else for her plight because she blames herself instead, truly believing that if she reduced her thigh circumference, learned to make confit, and developed "inner poise," all might yet be well.
Sure, that doesn't make Bridget anyone's idea of a feminist role model. Yet she's somehow not as irritating as Ally McBeal, with whom she's widely been compared. It may be that this kind of thing is simply easier to take in print than on the screen, where the realities of show business dictate that the woe-is-me character is invariably better-looking than oneself and has a nicer apartment, too.
It's important to realize, also, that Bridget isn't nearly as hopeless as she
claims to be. She's a funny, educated, undoubtedly attractive adult whose
confidence in herself has been undermined to the point of parody by the volleys
of contradictory advice that bombard women at every turn. And even so, her most
distinguishing foible is her utter inability to sustain a bad mood. Is she
infinitely resilient, or just so shallow she can't even be depressed properly?
Who cares? She makes you laugh at yourself for taking seriously, even for a
microsecond, anything you read in a women's magazine. Bridget Jones, the women
of America raise our alcohol units to you.
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