I am, or so I believe, a great proponent of escapist fiction. I’m not particularly opposed to reality in my fiction, but it’s not really a big issue for me. If I can, for example, settle into a coach seat during an east-to-west coast flight, open my book, and not notice “Everybody Loves Raymond” on the monitor, it’s a good flight for me.
So, yeah, when I was anticipating the flight home from Washington DC after BEA, I sorted through my loot for the perfect escapist read. Being one who found the first “Shopaholic” book quite entertaining, I chose Cocktails For Three by Madeleine Wickham aka Sophie Kinsella to be the book in my lap as we taxied down the runway. Alas, I should have recalled that the subsequent Shopaholic books were lacking that certain je ne sais quoi.
Which is to say that I found them unreadable.
Premise-wise, this book is a winner. Maggie, a Type-A editor, is about to give birth to her first child. Roxanne, a travel writer, is involved with a married man. Candice, sweet and naïve, is trying to make amends for her past. These three friends, who all happen to work for a chi-chi London magazine, faithfully get together once a month for drinks and gossip. It’s chick-lit at its theoretical best.
We meet our triumvirate just as Maggie is about to go on maternity leave. She and the girls have met for their final cocktails (no moralizing, please, they’re British). And that’s where I started to get ever-so-slightly annoyed. Our story begins after the characters have been established. The three women are already settled into their roles, so it’s like we’re picking them up late in the conversation.
Maggie is a high-powered editor, a workaholic, a serious mover-and-shaker. She’s the boss of everyone. And she’s scared spitless about giving birth. About being responsible for helpless child. About changing diapers. In order for the reader (moi!) to grasp her terror, I had to comprehend how competent Maggie is in her natural environment. Ah, yes, I needed to see Maggie in the Ordinary World.
Roxanne, the second-best character in the book, is cynical and romantic. Her affair with a married man isn’t just a fling on her part – it’s true love. Yet she understands that there’s more at stake than her personal happiness, and she’s managed to make peace with her choice. Sure, she wants more, but she’s not unhappy with what she has. She has options, and her decisions make it clear that her relationship, however incomplete, is her priority.
Then we have Candice, our, for lack of a better word, heroine. She’s sweet. She’s innocent. She’s naïve. She’s also dumb as dirt, but, you know, you can’t have it all. Candice’s father was a con artist, and the girls’ waitress in the bar that first and last night is the daughter of one of his victims. Sweet little Heather has fallen on hard times, and Candice is determined to make amends. Especially since she believes that Heather doesn’t know the truth about the past.
So Candice sets out to save Heather. She gets her a job at the magazine (working, conveniently, for Candice’s ex-boyfriend – ah, conflict, I know you well). Soon, they’re roommates, sharing manicures and meals and Candice’s generosity when it comes to bills. They are Best Friends Forever.
Of course, Heather is crazy as a loon and written with such lack of subtlety that Candice’s inability to see that the woman is trying to destroy her comes off as pathetic. Seriously, how many times do you need to be knocked down before you stop walking into the fist? (Note: Heather is also the best character in this book because she’s amoral and she doesn’t care.)
Meanwhile, on the farm (literally), Maggie has given birth and is dealing with motherhood. Badly. It’s sort of post-partum depression mixed with, I dunno, incompetence? Maybe had she attended some of the “how to be a mother” classes, things would be better? She’s in over her head and doesn’t know how to ask for help.
Had Wickham delved into this plotline, hello, great stuff. Instead she skates across the surface, shortchanging Maggie and her difficulties. I never knew Maggie-the-professional, so I never felt Maggie-the-inept-mother. This is a book I’d like to read – we tend to put motherhood on a pedestal in romantic fiction; I’d be fascinated by a story that showed real struggles with career versus motherhood – especially when the final decision is that not every woman is suited toward full-time parenting. But Maggie’s issues, from post-partum incompetence to mother-in-law jealousy to lifestyle, are so easily resolved that I felt cheated.
Likewise, Roxanne’s story – the classic Other Woman – could have been better developed. Adultery is fascinating to me, not that I’m going out seeking some for myself. But I can see how a person can cross the line and find him or herself engaged in an affair with a married person. There are morals and emotions and hormones and attraction. It isn’t black-and-white, and the emotional repercussions are powerful.
Wickham takes the emotional level a notch higher by giving Roxanne’s lover a no-win situation. He’s dying, and has to make choices about how to live out the rest of his life. What do you do when the end is near? What if the person you love is not the person you’re married to? What if there is no good choice?
I really liked this plot element, and I really wished this was the book. The whole book, with all the other stuff as periphery. I liked Roxanne. I liked her dilemma. I liked how it all played out. My only complaint iss that it didn’t occupy enough page time. Just as I wanted to read about a Type-A executive dealing with motherhood and failing, I wanted to delve into this adulterous affair, it’s genesis, and it’s repercussions. Yeah, I wanted more than this story wanted to give.
Then we have Candice. She annoyed the you-know-what out me. Her sweet romance with the high-powered (natch) lawyer next door was cliché. Her inability to see Heather’s true nature was irritating. I’m big on karma balancing, but willful ignorance is inexcusable. Especially when it’s not well-developed on the page. You want me to believe that Maggie, Roxanne, and Candice are best friends? Then make sure that Candice has a brain.
As I was reading, my sense was that this was an older work by the author, marketed as something brand new. Confessions Of A Shopaholic was published in the U.S. at about the same time the original UK version of this book hit the shelves (2001) – yes, this is an old book being marketed as fairly new. “Shopaholic”, to me, was a far more polished work with a stronger voice. And funnier. The blurbs on this book suggest a great humor – and I do get British humor, except the fat guys in drag thing – yet this was not funny. It wasn’t clever. It wasn’t witty.
I read “Shopaholic”. This author can be sharp and funny. This is not a sharp and funny book. This book was no “Shopaholic”.
Yeah, I ended up watching “Everybody Love Raymond.”
* – I know. But authors who don’t have websites should be forced to listen to very long lectures about not having websites.