Have you heard? Chick lit is dead. The plucky heroine? Over. Tales of life among the single in the big city? Gone the way of Studio 54; the business records have been seized and threats of jail time for tax evasion loom. Variety, a publication devoted to reporting about the film industry, said so. They even used phrases like “as out of style as last year’s Jimmy Choos” and “jumped the shark.” The focus of contemporary women’s literature, Variety claims, is a more grown up, post-Sex and the City phase of life, the literary equivalent of “disco sucks.” Can any of this be true? Is it safe to trust a Hollywood publication’s take on publishing? Sure, if you don’t mind following pronouncements that are so far behind the curve that what they declare as old has had time to become new again.
It is into this 70s-like hangover that Liz Ireland’s The Pink Ghetto arrives complete with its plucky twenty-something heroine, who lives in New York, works as a book editor and is chronically unlucky in love. It’s almost like the “chick lit is dead” memo didn’t get wide circulation, or more likely well written stories continue to be published in defiance of trend watchers.
Ireland’s heroine, Rebecca Abbot, is as her ex-boyfriend (and current roommate) Fleishman explains, “She who has been overlooked.” An overweight middle child from a large family, Rebecca isn’t spunky by nature; she’s whatever she needs to be, from moment to moment to survive. It’s the need for money that forces Rebecca to blanket Manhattan with her resume; as she puts it, “If Pol Pot had been hiring, I probably would have fired off my resume.” So when Candlelight Books turns out to be the well-known publishing house seeking an assistant editor, Rebecca plays up skills she doesn’t have to land the job. She lies so well that she gets the job of associate editor, leap frogging over the assistant position.
The pink ghetto is a pejorative term used for books or magazines that target women—funny how Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine are not equally denigrated with a moniker like Jock Itch Ghetto—and in this case, Candlelight Books publishes that most denigrated of all genres: romance. Rebecca quickly learns that the business of happily ever after is a shark tank and she is fresh meat. Typically books that look at the publishing industry focus on the writer’s perspective, which makes for a myopic read that breaks the fourth wall. By allowing Rebecca into the world of author/publisher relations, conferences and publishing as an editor, the perspective is fresh and the urge to wonder how much of the protagonist’s experiences had once been the author’s is removed.
Ireland’s bio includes a brief mention of her own stint in romance publishing, but the large cast of coworkers Ireland surrounds Rebecca with evoke the bite-or-be-bitten atmosphere of any workplace. The inter-office relations are universal and easily relatable which alleviates the sense of a roman a clef. Rebecca has an antagonist in Cassie who resents that she lost her promotion to Rebecca and seeks vengeance; an ally in Andrea who hates Candlelight and wants out; a protégé in Lindsey who is the one person more prone to screw ups than Rebecca. Each of Rebecca’s co-workers serves a purpose in Rebecca’s journey and helps move the story along, but with so many women (three of whom have phonically similar names: Mercedes, Mary Jo, and Muriel) it is difficult to read without stepping out of the story to place the characters.
As expected of chick lit, Rebecca is surrounded by too many Mr. Wrongs and too few Mr. Rights. Her love life is nothing like the romances Candlelight publishes, until Fleishman, a failed playwright, writes a “from his point-of-view” romance that details Rebecca’s case of idol-worship for him and displays their one-sided relationship, with his perspective of her faults for the world to see. The anti-romance that becomes what the romance publisher wants is a turn that isn’t subtle, yet remains an interesting point in Rebecca’s story. Her relationships with men, from Fleishman (and the reader understands the doomed nature of this from page one) to the hot agent Dan, to the suave guy on the elevator, are the only portion of this typical chick lit story that fail to feel fresh.
Ireland’s voice is relentlessly witty and her storytelling clever. The Pink Ghetto is a character driven story that complicates the plot by allowing the characters to be themselves, which keeps them in conflict. Ireland’s story succeeds not by following a formula—though it most certainly does that—but by executing the basics: clean writing, strong characters and believable dialog. Who said chick lit is dead?
You can visit Liz here and purchase this book here and here.