This review contains spoilers.
As I suspect it was for many people, the publication of an unexpected further instalment of Bridget Jones’s Diary (after the first two novels came out not far apart in 1996 and 1999, having been preceded by a newspaper column) was for me a literary event. I purchased the book as soon as it was released (something I hardly ever do), and started reading it as soon as I had purchased it (even more unheard of: my shelves and my conscious alike sag under the ever-growing weight of unread books, making me feel like Gatsby, telling myself with each new purchase that tomorrow I will be able to run faster, and catch up with all this stuff)! My original plan was to get through the book within a few days so that I could post a timely review of it on this blog. Unfortunately, this plan was frustrated partly by a stomach bug working its way through the members of my household, and partly by the various demands of the start of term… This, with its reference to the plans we enthusiastically make, the always time-consuming and unpredictable and often messy demands of everyday life, and the gap that opens up between these two things, is already taking us deep into Bridget Jones territory. Indeed, for me, this may be at the heart of the genius of Helen Fielding and her most famous character. Bridget is a dramatization of how time feels when one has goals, demands, distractions and desires – and the particular ones that modern middle-aged middle class Westerners have: writing deadlines; an inbox that rarely sleeps; a work life and a sex life and a family life; communications devices, social networking profiles, search engines, and fridges full of food that all lure you with their promises of connection or consumption.
I have dipped my toe in the online critical response to the novel now that I have finished it, and I agree with those people (of whom there are a fair few) who point out that there is quite a lot wrong with Mad About the Boy. It lacks the elegant plotting of the first instalment (and it is not to qualify Fielding’s achievement too greatly to observe that that elegance derives from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which, as most people will know, lends the first Bridget Jones’s Diary not only the name of its male romantic hero but also its overall plot structure). But I also enjoyed the novel hugely. Given that I found its pleasures to be many, and miscellaneous, I thought that a good way to approach this review would be to write in a series of bullet points, rather than to try (much as the novel does not appear to!) to do something more neat and well-wrought, and in this way try to give appropriate weight both to the novel’s great successes and to its major flaws.
- At the level of plot structure Fielding is certainly more than a little shaky, but her sharp eye for details and her gift for prose that is descriptive and humorous is hard to beat. There are countless examples of acute distillations of bits and pieces of lifestyle that other popular media texts offer as things to aspire to and emulate (one example I enjoyed is Bridget’s desire to have a ‘mixy-matchy “capsule wardrobe” so that getting dressed becomes a calm joy instead of hysterical scramble.’ There is also the phenomenology of everyday frustrating activities. I could identify with this one, for example: ‘Managed to get Mabel [...] into the car, leaning over in the traditional body-wrenching movement [...], fastening the seat belt by waddling my hand in the mess between the seat back and booster seat.’
- One can also marvel at and savour the poetic terseness and expert tonal modulations of individual sentences. Simply by dropping articles, pronouns, and so on, Fielding has created a mode of speech that is instantly recognisable as Bridget’s, helping us to enter her mental universe. On the subject of modulation: the comic effect in the following sentences derives from the way in which a familiar complaint about technology gradually becomes more and more hyperbolic and baroque: ‘Why does turning on a TV set these days require three remotes with ninety buttons? Why? Suspect designed by thirteen-year-old technogeeks, competing with each other from sordid bedrooms, leaving everyone else thinking they’re the only person in the world who doesn’t understand what the buttons are for, thus wreaking psychological damage on a massive, global scale.’ (Just one more example in this vein – Bridget’s flights of fancy when extrapolating the consequences of her actions are also marvellous rapid accumulations of evocative and humorous details: ‘If I shrivel and become bitter, then what use will that be to the children? They will become child-centric, demanding King Babies: and I a negative, rasping old fool, lunging at sherry [that clause is especially good], roaring “WHY DON’T YOU DO ANYTHING FOR MEEEEEEEEE?”‘)
- This gift for the thumbnail sketch is also put to use in moments where Bridget remembers her life before Mark is killed, and some of the difficult moments of her widowhood. For example: ‘Did not want it to end up like last year, with me trying to stop my heart from breaking into pieces at doing Santa without Mark and sobbing behind the kitchen counter, whilst Mum and Una squabbled over lumps in the gravy and commented on my parenting and housekeeping, as if, rather than inviting them for Christmas, I had called them in as Systems Analysts.’ The book reduced me to tears (albeit only briefly) on more than one occasion.
- Bridget remains as vivid as ever, but many of the other characters are unsatisfying. Of the recurring ones, it is Daniel Cleaver who is most disappointing, as he has been reduced to a one-note sexaholic. Of the new characters, it is the ones at ‘Greenlight Productions’ who are least well-realised. It is in the passages where Bridget attends meetings at Greenlight where Fielding’s grasp on her material feels least assured. As one person whose review I read pointed out, correctly, the subplot involving Bridget’s screenplay is almost entirely redundant.
- This lack of cohesion even extends to the two main male characters. These are ‘Roxster’, the 30 year old whom Bridget spends most of the novel with, and Mr Wallaker, who watches Bridget with Darcy-like loving chastisement from a distance for most of the novel before revealing his warmth and love for Bridget towards the end. It is hard when reading not to view characters and events through the lens of Pride and Prejudice. In the first Bridget Jones, Daniel was the Wickham character, and Mark Darcy was, of course, Mr Darcy. And this schema is partially repeated in the new novel. Like Wickham, Roxster is the more immediately charming, but ultimately the more unsuitable. Like Darcy, Mr Wallaker is stand-offish but ultimately utterly noble, and a red hot lover to boot. One effect of the second-guessing that the echoes of Bridget Jones’s Diary and, in turn, Pride and Prejudice encourage is that we are likely to spend most of the novel waiting for Roxster to turn out to be a louse. In the end, this does not happen. Bridget and Roxster part amicably, without blame on either side. (Eventually the age gap of twenty years between them is the deciding factor, which raises a whole other set of issues that I won’t try to address here.) There are some instances where the pre-judgment of the Wickham character or equivalent is used in a principled and interesting fashion – Lost in Austen being the best example I can think of – but here I wasn’t sure how I felt, or how I was meant to feel, about Roxster.
- Bringing together these two issues of lack of cohesion and slightly misfiring Pride and Prejudice echoes: in Pride and Prejudice and in Bridget Jones’s Diary, Wickham and Darcy/Cleaver and Darcy hold deep yet concealed grudges against one another, which propel the story along for most of its duration. In Mad About the Boy, the same is not true of Roxster and Mr Wallaker, which further contributes to the novel’s episodic feel.
- I wasn’t quite satisfied with the Wallaker character either. This is the one aspect of the novel that I would say was both over-done (he’s so like Darcy that we can see the end coming) and under-done (Roxster is too present and too good for too long, I would suggest, for us to be completely satisfied by his replacement). Having said that, the (again, not-subtle) comparisons with Daniel Craig in Skyfall and Russell Crowe in Gladiator did deliver me to the correct model of masculine desirability very efficiently, and made me wonder if the same trick could be pulled off with Daniel Craig in a film adaptation as was pulled off with Colin Firth in the first Bridget Jones movie.
I will end here, despite feeling that I haven’t quite done justice to the novel or to my experience of it. The above strikes me as more negative than positive, whereas my experience of reading Mad About the Boy was definitely more positive than negative. Which is to say that getting public acts of criticism to match up with the moment-by-moment, private experience of reading is difficult. The things that are easiest to talk and write about afterwards (the overall shape of the plot, the depth of characterisation) are the things that this novel does least well. The things that are hardest to capture after the fact, in critical prose, are the things that it frequently excels at. Perhaps, then, that is why I liked it as much as I did.