Modern women writers are no more perceptive than modern women welders or attorneys when they find romantic mores confusing, unwieldy, and unfair. But the writers, despite their supposed vast imaginative resources, seem to have agreed to agree on how to contextualize the vagaries of love—by pinching plots from great literary fiction of the past.
You have to hand it to these women for their taste—Tama Janowitz could choose no better target for homage than Edith Wharton’s society tragedy The House of Mirth, which Janowitz plopped into present-day New York City for last year’s A Certain Age. Diane Johnson’s bizarre, ugly, sexually amoral Le Divorce takes Henry James’ chic American expatriates on the prowl in contemporary Paris, where TV crews, EuroDisney, terrorists, and the twisted ethos of continental aristocracy vie for the heedless heroine’s attention. And Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones—the scatterbrained, bad-habit-riddled, ever-dieting fluffball beloved of “singleton” readers who want nothing more than to be rescued from the thinking and working world by marriage—trips along in the well-worn footprints of Jane Austen’s heroines, going so far as to overlook and then swooningly behold the nice-strong-arm potential of a Mr. Darcy.
These transpositions may offer their readers a comfort factor, evidence that not much has changed in 100, 150 years except that the characters have more sex. But the world has changed—not only have the roles of women expanded from the options of wife or mistress or maiden aunt, not only has male anxiety rendered the nice strong arm increasingly unwilling and unavailable, but, well, everyone’s having a lot more sex. Using a society in which a woman’s sexual behavior is a prime indicator of her value as a setting for a story in which sleeping around is a narrative lagniappe makes either the details showy and irrelevant or the context unrealistic. By putting Elizabeth Bennett in a miniskirt and tanking her up on chardonnay, Fielding isn’t illuminating, updating, or even paying tribute to Austen—she’s just certifying the bankruptcy of her own well of ideas.
Perhaps modern romantic mores are too confusing to make sense of even in a work of fiction, but Fielding fears context and any attendant ambiguity to the extent that Bridget’s world and worldview are exasperatingly narrow. Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, like its smash-hit predecessor Bridget Jones’s Diary, is an endless rehashing of the heroine’s romantic travails, romantic obsessions, and frenzy for self-assessment that goes no deeper than the potential lovability of the face in the mirror. Doubts and fears plagued the scheming or unfortunate ladies of Wharton’s New York ton, but Bridget is nothing but the sum of her self-reflection. What should be amusing, touching aspects of a cute giddy heroine virtually swallow
Edge of Reason finds Bridget where the first book left her, ensconced in the arms of rich, divorced, patient Mark Darcy, who’s kind of a stick, in the heroine-centered scenario traditional to Disney animated features and paperback romance novels, but at the same time seems too good and long-suffering to have thrown in his lot with such a ditz. Have true love and regular sex rinsed Bridget of her insecurities? What fun would that be?
As unfit for romantic selflessness as she was unhappy with singlehood, Bridget scrambles to keep up with Mark’s glamorous circle and to keep him out of the claws of Rebecca, a gorgeous predator Bridget and friends call a “jellyfisher”—the kind of sweetly smiling evil cow who slings veiled insults amid friendly conversation with women but gets along winningly with males of any species. Bridget’s fears unravel her relationship with Mark; meanwhile, she initiates superfluous remodeling work on her apartment, shows up late for work and does nothing when she gets there, and has lengthy, chardonnay-sodden romantic post-mortems with her friends Sharon, Magda, and Jude.
Edge of Reason feels hasty, without the richness of the original’s colorful population, which highlighted the stolid middle-class milieu—personified by her mother, the kind of fluttery, oblivious matron sadly mistaken in her belief that she’s arty and tolerant—that spawned Bridget. The heroine’s friends are indistinguishable from one another; they have no personalities of their own—Fielding cannot find a way to differentiate them even by looks—and function as a giddy Greek chorus echoing drunkenly Bridget’s every wrongheaded supposition. For this outing, the well-meaning Mrs. Jones adopts a Masai warrior named Wellington, to no conceivable end, and her perverse circle of dinner-party guests have, for the most part, scurried off. This turn of events leaves us Bridget, Mark, cameos by the girl group, Bridget’s thoughts about Bridget, and Bridget’s thoughts about Mark.
Fielding’s mad rush to bung Bridget into a story, any story, results in a miserable, long midsection, which finds our girl embarking on a holiday to Thailand with her pals. They hook up with a handsome, charming rogue who serially seduces them, and if none of these gullible broads know what he’s up to, they deserve what comes next (Brokedown Palace with giggles). Bridget keeps her sanity during her sojourn in a Thai jail with lots of pens and writing paper, satisfaction with all the weight she’s losing, and a copy of that middlebrow masterpiece “If,” Rudyard Kipling’s ode to the gentleman’s C. The spectacle of Bridget dithering her way through this affair and emerging thinner but not an ounce more thoughtful is stomach-churning indeed.
In prison or daydreaming through a morning meeting, Bridget’s writing is as peppy and infectious as ever, rife with “Hurrah!”s and the “Oh, telephone” motif. She still keeps a running, very approximate tally of her daily numbers—cigarettes smoked, alcohol units, calories, and other statistics such as number of seconds since had sex, number of potential normal boyfriends remaining in world, and number of self-help books slated for the dustbin. As a peek into the heroine’s mind, these accounts are cute and revealing, but they are only responses to her life as of that moment—nothing in the diary reflects her memories, desires beyond those of being thin and loved, or any ongoing development past the girly gripes. She doesn’t read anything but self-help books, doesn’t see movies unless Colin Firth gets naked in them (Pride and Prejudice, of course), doesn’t think about anything she can’t put in or on herself.
Bridget’s insecurity and casual acquaintance with willpower aren’t inherently annoying qualities, but given her lack of inner life or outward-directed thoughts, she’s a teeth-gratingly irksome heroine. Fielding’s diary format—the traditional repository for inner struggle and confession—does not excuse this one-aisle mind; her format’s rules are painfully slipshod. If Edge of Reason is supposed to be pages of Bridget’s diary, it’s awfully informative where it doesn’t have to be. As Bridget glugs a celebratory bottle alone in her flat in December, she takes notes every few minutes, from 8:20 p.m.’s “Love the lovely wine” to 8:25’s decision to read the Christmas Vogue to her reaction to the magazine 15 minutes later. She decides, in print, to reread a Christmas card, jots down the text of the card in her diary, jots down an entire newspaper item in response to the card, and, as midnight approaches, scribbles each moment’s action to keep us well apprised: “11:20 p.m. Dunnit. Off to the postssbox now”; “11:30 p.m. Backinfla. Blurry tree. I know. Wllgetscissors”; “Midnight. Yurs. Berrer. Oof. Sleepynow. Oops. Tumbled over.”
It takes a woman of massive self-possession to write down “Tumbled over” if she has indeed just done so, and Bridget is not that woman. Throughout, her weirdly demonstrative writing style indicates that a more expansive mind might be at work than one that obsesses on calorie intake and man-trapping. (“Incensed with rage at stupid Paolo,” she writes after a disastrous haircut. If she’s talking to herself, why isn’t “Stupid, stupid Paolo!” the simplest reaction?) But Fielding uses these tricks— as well as long recorded dialogues, party scenes, and faithfully transcribed phone calls—to open up her format while not bothering to open up Bridget’s purview. Nor is her incessant writing folded into the action of her life—no one ever tells her to stop writing in that damn diary, even as she’s taking notes on the conversation.
Romance novels will always be with us, and no amount of by-the-numbers paperback dreams can break the spell of great literary fiction centered around the boy-girl thing. But wine, nicotine, and the urge to shag Colin Firth don’t disguise Edge of Reason’s lack of narrative imagination—there are even the hoary device of the Note She Never Received (a confession of love/ultimatum), laughingly explained in the cuddly denouement, a comedic comeuppance for Rebecca, whom (in the tradition of all scheming wretches) dogs and children naturally dislike, and a botched job assignment that turns to triumph. Edge of Reason is a cute enough read, fun and zippy and nothing Bridget herself couldn’t get through, if she ever read a book, after two or three tries. But Fielding’s worldview as posited by her heroine—in which women are idiots or bitches, men are strong and capable or boors or class-bound nebbishes, and a rich marriage is the only escape from even an untested and undemanding world—is distressing enough without the knowledge that millions of women couldn’t agree more. CP