Reader’s Journal: Anybody Out There?

mk_anybodyI don’t read much chick lit. Now, before you go calling me snob, you should know that I am not against the “chick” genre per se. After all, I do own the entire Sex and the City series, which I know is a television show but should count for something–even though I never read the book, or anything else by Candace Bushnell. Still, even in terms of books, I am not completely averse to the charms of chick lit. I read Bridget Jones’s Diary in hardcover, after all, long before Renee Zellweger even thought about gaining twenty pounds and trying on a British accent. I read The Devil Wears Prada for my book club right after it was published–it was even my pick (which I hated, but I did enjoy the movie)–and I made it halfway through The Nanny Diaries before giving up in complete despair.

I admit I’ve avoided the likes of Sophie Kinsella, Plum Sykes, and Jennifer Weiner, just to name a few of the more famous chick lit authors out there. Why? To be honest, I’m not sure. I suppose it’s a simple matter of never connecting with the characters in that genre, who too often seem more like caricatures and stereotypes than real people. (I know, I know. I just admitted to loving a show about a sex columnist with a crazy shoe habit and designer wardrobe who manages not just to survive but thrive in Manhattan. Not real. Says you.) Even more “literary,” well-crafted chick lit–say, Erica Krouse’s story collection Come Up and See Me Sometime–can leave me cold, with its semi-nihilistic mini-skirted thirtysomethings who can’t love.

So why did I pick up Marian Keyes’s Anybody Out There? I bought it several years ago, when a non-book blogger whose blog I really enjoy put together a summer reading list. In fact, in addition to Anybody Out There?, I also bought The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets (are you wondering how that’s not chick lit? hang on…I’ll get there), The Thirteenth Tale (not bad for a light summer mystery), and The Perfect Summer (which I have yet to read) based on her list.

Apparently, Anybody Out There? is really part of a sort of series of books Marian Keyes has written about the Walsh sisters. This book focuses on the next-to-youngest girl of four in the family, Anna, who leaves Ireland and makes it big in the Big City (New York, naturally) as a PR person for a cosmetics line called Candy Grrrl. She’s too smart for her job. She has a wickedly gorgeous, man-eating best friend. She has a kooky family, albeit back in Ireland (with the exception of her sister Rachel). She gets loads of free samples. And, as prescribed, she meets the perfect man.

But there’s a twist.

When the book opens, Anna is home in Ireland with her family. She has a broken arm, a dislocated knee, and several large cuts and bruises on her face. She’s also lost her memory of whatever it was that got her into such a terrible state. Of course, I can’t tell you what it is, because Keyes reveals it to us slowly through the first third of the book. We learn bits and scraps as Anna’s memory returns. And I am not ashamed to tell you: even though I had an inkling of what happened (it’s actually not too hard to figure it out), when Anna remembered it herself, I cried. Not sobs or anything, but there were definitely tears.

The last two-thirds of the book deal with Anna coming to terms with what has happened to her as best she can, interspersed with chapters containing e-mail messages from her nutty mother and her sister Helen. Those sort of serve as a distraction, and while Helen’s e-mails in particular are funny, that part of the book really does nothing to move the story along. Toward the end I found myself skimming those chapters, trying to get back to Anna. She also faces a Devil Wears Prada type situation where she must pull out all the stops to impress her boss against all the odds…of course, she wins in that area, and frankly that part of the plot also seems a bit gratuitous.

The best parts of the book happen when Keyes leaves us alone with Anna, as she tries to deal with her situation. The writing isn’t spectacular, but Anna is a pretty likable character–actually quite normal, very few hangups, and not overly precious or sassy–and Keyes manages to handle a sad situation with real pathos and kind humor, even as Anna turns to mediums and psychics to help her cope. I wish, in fact, that Keyes had developed that part of the story more fully, because it really could have taken the book in a better direction. Another thing I liked about it: the ending was rather neutral. Anna wins in some ways, but she’s by no means fully recovered at the close of the book.

Would I recommend it? Sure. It would be a great beach read, as long as you keep your expectations in check. Will I read another one of Marian Keyes’s books? Maybe, if I happen upon one, or get a really strong recommendation from someone I trust.

It’s funny, because I think this book does have some successful non-chick-lit elements, and thinking about that made me wonder: why do some books by women about women successfully transcend the genre, even while they might still be considered, for lack of a better term, girly? They aren’t political (The Women’s Room), and they may not even be particularly deep (anything by Virginia Woolf), but they have a…a quality.  I hesitate to use the term “literary,” because I think it’s sort of meaningless. As I said earlier, I greatly enjoyed The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice, but I don’t consider it chick-lit. I tend to think of it more as a coming-of-age story, more in line with Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. Other books I’d place in this “non-chick-lit” category are Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore; The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett; Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie; or Nobody’s Girl by Antonya Nelson. Heck, even Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone fits in that category–and the author is a man. I may just be splitting hairs, or perhaps I make a different set of rules for books I really like. These rules change all the time, really. Anybody Out There? didn’t break any of them for me, but that’s okay.

So what say you: What do you consider “chick-lit?” Can you recommend anything to help change my perspective, or do you agree with all my hair-splitting?

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7 comments

  1. I tend to think of chick lit as having a comic touch to it. Even if the takes the character’s problems seriously, there might be a little exagerration in the telling, or something in the main character’s voice that keeps it from being overly dramatic. I don’t read much of it, for the same reasons you mention, but when I do, it’s usually because I’m in the mood for something that will make me smile.

  2. Whenever I think of chick lit, I always think the work has to be fluffy, and as Teresa said, have a comic element to it. It also revolves around “stereotypically female” plots like finding a man or being a mom. I don’t read much of it either, to be honest, though I did go through a phase in highschool when I read those kinds of books. To me, I find them to be the kind of book I can turn my brain off when I read, and because the characters are so often simply caricatures, I find it hard to connect with any of them. I think I prefer books that have a little more meat and emotional heft to them, but every once in a while, I do want something cosy and non-threatening…

    [As if I should be talking about this right now – I’m currently reading the sequel to The Nanny Diaries! Then again, it’s for work and not a book I would have picked up on my own…]

  3. Teresa, that’s a good point: a comic touch.

    Steph, yes it does revolve around stereotypical plots…it’s difficult when you can see everything coming to stay engaged–it is for me, at least, especially when the characters aren’t engaging. I don’t envy you reading reading the sequel to Nanny Diaries. *shudder* 🙂

  4. Thanks so much for finding and commenting on my blog! I think the re-read challenge will happen 🙂 Will be sure to post more on it once we get it all sorted. As for chick lit, I tend to stay away, too. Any story in which a really ditzy girl somehow wins over a hot, very wealthy man gets on my nerves! But I agree that a comic element usually exists in them.

  5. I don’t really read chick lit, not because of being snobby either, but only that the subjects being discussed in these novels really never interest me (boyfriend angst, executive jobs, fashion). And by that I mean “in books.” Because I so enjoy watching films about women obsessed with fashion and boyfriends, lol. Yes, Sex and the City, The Devil Wears Prada, Bridget Jones, etc, I very much enjoyed watching.

    I didn’t know about the chick lit genre before when I tried reading Bridget Jones. I just considered it literature in general, so no biases involved. Same with The Nanny Diaries when I tried reading it. Still, I could not get past the first three pages of Bridget Jones and could not get past even the first page of Nanny Diaries. I gave up. A few years later, I learned about the “chick lit” genre, and realized then that it wasn’t for me so I had never tried to pick up one since.

    I think mainly this has to do with what I read as a kid. Steph said she read similar stuff in high school. I never really enjoyed reading Sweet Valley and those types of books as a kid/teen. Both my sisters were reading them but my inclination was for Nancy Drew. Afterwards, my sisters and I graduated into “supermarket” books. They both tended towards Danielle Steel and historical romances like Judith McNaught and JOhanna Lindsey. I tended towards Sidney Sheldon and Stephen King and VC Andrews, lol. So I guess it’s not that I discount them as fluff (because I do read fantasy fluff that I very much enjoy, like Christopher Paolini hehe) but that the themes in the chick lit novels just don’t interest me.

  6. Aarti, I will definitely be looking for the re-read challenge. Thanks for dropping by to say hello!

    Reviewsbylola (can I just call you Lola?), agreed!

    Claire, I swear I think Bridget Jones started it all. I really don’t remember there being a specific niche for chick lit until after that book hit and was such a huge success. We just had the broad category of “romance.” I too read Nancy Drew and so on as a girl, but I never read Sweet Valley High–I didn’t even know about it until I was an adult, actually. Like you, I read VC Andrews, Sidney Sheldon, Susan Isaacs, Rosamund Pilcher, Anne Rice. I was also really into Rona Jaffe…and of course, Judy Blume, SE Hinton, etc., when I was a teen. I think that reading more broadly as a younger person maybe has something to do with it? I agree, I don’t mind fluff, but I do like it to be about more than just finding a man.

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