TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. In the iconic novels written by Helen Fielding, wine-guzzling heroine Bridget Jones always was ready for a good time. But book critic Maureen Corrigan says a wise girl should know when to leave the party. Maureen has a review of the latest Bridget Jones sequel as well as a new encyclopedia, "A Feminist Opinion" from the Jezebel website.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Dizzy dames don't age well. An attractive young thing doing pratfalls is disarming; an older woman stumbling around for laughs spells hip replacement. Sad to say, Bridget Jones has hung on to her once-endearing daffiness, self-deprecation, and wine dependency far past their collective expiration date. That's one of the big reasons why her latest outing, called "Mad About the Boy," is painful to read.
Speaking as an original Bridget fan, I would have hoped that by 51, the age she is here, Bridget would have become more grounded. She needn't love her loosening skin, but by now she should be more at home in it. I think, of course, of Nora Ephron, who so famously felt bad about her neck, but was also sharp about the cultural pressures that made her feel like she should always cover it up with a scarf.
This older incarnation of Bridget, however, is still swamped by unattractive insecurities. As ever, she records every pound gained or lost in order to squeeze herself into stretch jeans and thigh-high boots and go out trolling for love. Helen Fielding's first Bridget Jones novel, which debuted in 1996, as well as the 2001 movie made from it, were fun riffs on "Pride and Prejudice," with Bridget in the role of beloved heroine Elizabeth Bennet.
"Mad About the Boy," however, unintentionally calls to mind another British literary classic, "Great Expectations," with Bridget as a grotesque Miss Havisham, eternally aping the frozen-in-amber giddiness of her youth. The premise of "Mad About the Boy" is that Bridget's dishy husband, Mark Darcy, has died four years earlier while on a human rights mission.
Bridget, a self-described geriatric mum of two small children, now finds herself vaguely yearning to shed her celibacy and plunge into the dating game again. I'll admit that there are isolated passages in this third Bridget Jones book that made me laugh, as of old. When, for instance, Bridget decides to get a Twitter account and 75 followers magically appear she resolves to show leadership by sending out a welcome tweet. It reads: Welcome followers. I am thy leader. Ye art most welcome to my cult. Dopey, sure, but preferable to, say, the humiliating scene where an eternally awkward Bridget is stuck dangling from a tree in her thong underwear. The earlier novels also had scenes like that. Bridget often lost clothing and awaited rescue by the buttoned-up Mr. Darcy.
The feminism of the Bridget Jones books certainly didn't derive from their traditional romantic plots or any conscious resistance on Bridget's part. Instead, it was the humor of those novels that made them mildly anarchic. Bridget's goofy failures in fitting into the prescribed female roles subverted them. This third book is depressing precisely because Bridget is still trying to fit in at an age when she should know better. The joke is all on Bridget here.
If you're looking for jolly feminist cultural commentary, give "Mad About the Boy" a pass and instead pick up "The Book of Jezebel." This is a lavish encyclopedia composed of contributions from the writers and artists who've helped shape the Jezebel website, which was created in 2007 by award-winning writer Anna Holmes.
"The Book of Jezebel" is packed with gorgeous graphics and photos, as well as witty and unruly entries on everything from Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House on the Prairie" books to speculums. Most gloriously, this is an encyclopedia with a voice. Take, for instance, the entry on conservative commentator Ann Coulter, which notes that she subsists on a diet of kittens.
There's even a prophetic entry for "Bridget Jones's Diary," which observes that the enormous popularity of the first novel inspired the mostly crappy chick-lit craze, which eventually cannibalized the genre's original heroine. They got that right without even seeing this most recent Bridget Jones sequel. Rest in Peace, Bridget Jones. Live long and prosper, Jezebel.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy" and "The Book of Jezebel: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of 'Lady Things.'" You can read an excerpt of each book on our website freshair.npr.org.
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