Wednesday, 1 June 2011
Why do I like chick lit?
The book group I belong to are reading Sophie Kinsella’s ‘Remember me’ this month. I think I am the only man in the group, so it is slightly weird that I recommended Kinsella to the others.
‘Remember me’, for those who don’t know, tells a first person story of a woman who wakes up after a road accident having lost the last three years of her memory. The last thing she remembers is falling down some steps coming out of a club somewhat the worse for wear. We get a brief sketch of her underachieving life and tedious job in which she has just failed to get an annual bonus because she has been working a few days less than a year. She has been out drinking with those who did get a bonus and is feeling pissed at her employers who she thinks have been mean, her boy friend, who didn’t turn up, and her dysfunctional family. Did she make it to her estranged father’s funeral? Not a cheerful start to a book but told with enough pace and wry wit to keep the reader turning the pages.
She wakes up in hospital assuming she hit her head falling down the stairs and gradually discovers that she is three years older, rich, with a very good looking and successful husband and appears to be running the department that she used to work in.
Her first reaction is to think ‘Hey great, I have a wonderful life, even though I have no idea where it came from.’
It would be very easy to descend into some heavy serious stuff about amnesia, or if I was writing it, I’m sure I’d have to fight off the temptation to explore some detailed neuroscience. Instead, Kinsella manages to keep moving with the story and uses chance encounters in scenes with other characters to open up just enough of the confusion and anxiety that would be felt by anyone in this predicament. She manages to convey a character who is both too shallow to be seriously bothered by what has happened and yet also driven by abiding curiosity to discover how her life has changed.
We discover that all her old friends hate her because she is now a very demanding boss, nickname cobra. Gradually we begin to get other glimpses of a less than perfect life.
In some respects, it could be argued that there is no plot, not in the active sense anyway; it is more a sort of static mystery to be uncovered, almost like archaeology. What drives the book along is the lead character’s curiosity about the last three years of her life. This is only likely to work as a literary device if the reader has enough sympathy and empathy with the character to care about her life. So where does that empathy come from?
Putting it another way, what is it about this ditsy woman that makes me want to turn the pages? Asking myself the question brings me up against the simple fact that almost every woman I know is more interesting, or at least less shallow than this character appears to be, at least from her own description of herself. I think the crucial issue is the contrast between how she professes to be and what she appears to have achieved, plus perhaps some basic empathy with her predicament.
I think that is what makes me read Kinsella’s other books too. She puts apparently lightweight characters into situations that demand our empathy, and then in rising to the challenge, something emerges in their character that demands our admiration and rewards us for reading to the end.
I’m taking the risk of writing this before I find out what the rest of the reading group think. They may hate it.