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Bet Me
Bet Me
Jennifer Crusie
St. Martin's Press, 2004
384 pp., 22.95

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Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy
Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy
Carlos Eire
Free Press, 2004
400 pp., 18.00

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by Susan Wise Bauer

Food Porn

The secret life of chick lit.

Twentysomething reporter Jemima Jones is bright, funny, warm, caring, kind—and overweight. Despite her extra pounds, Jemima still hopes to snare the man of her dreams, studly deputy editor Ben Williams. If she's funny and charming enough, Ben might notice her wit and intelligence; he might forget about her cellulite and instead be drawn to "the emerald green of her eyes … the fullness of her ripe lips … the shiny swinginess of … her ever so glossy hair." Will Ben finally see past Jemima's unfashionable waistline, to the real Jemima?

Fat chance.

Jemima J., a glossy trade paperback with a pair of legs on the cover, is "chick lit," part of a genre spawned by Helen Fielding's megabestseller Bridget Jones's Diary. Chick-lit heroines—urban twenty- and thirtysomethings searching for love—are sharp, independent, frustrated working women. The women who buy chick lit, according to British chick-lit author Jenny Colgan, have grown up "with financial independence; with living on our own and having far too many choices about getting married (while watching our baby boomer parents fall apart) … [with] hauling ourselves up through the glass ceiling." Chick lit readers don't want to entertain themselves with old-fashioned romances starring "women with long blonde hair [who] built up business empires from harsh beginnings using only their extraordinary beauty." They want heroines just like themselves.

At 204 pounds, Jemima Jones is one of the heaviest characters in chick lit. But Cannie Shapiro (New York Times bestseller Good in Bed) wears a size 16; in chapter 1, she discovers that her ex-boyfriend Bruce has just written a magazine column called "Loving a Larger Woman." ("I loved … her size, her amplitude, her luscious, zaftig heft," Bruce sighs. "Loving a larger woman is an act of courage in this world.") When we meet sharp, ambitious lawyer Kate (Did You Get the Vibe?), she's standing in front of a mirror mourning her rounded stomach: "Brokenhearted women are supposed to lose weight. So why was she getting so fat?" (Kate starts lifting weights, loses 20 pounds, dumps law to become a personal trainer, and hooks a weightlifter.) Plump Minerva Dobbs (Bet Me) longs to hear her boyfriend say, "You're beautiful, you're thin," but the closest he gets before breaking up with her is "You'd make a wonderful mother."

Even when weight isn't central to the plot, the scale is never far away. In The Devil Wears Prada, Andrea gets a prime job at the fashion magazine Runway, thanks to a 20-pound weight loss brought on by a bout of amoebic dysentery. Now 5'10" and 115 pounds, Andrea soon realizes that she is "the troll of the group, the squattest and widest." When the magazine's fashion consultant brings Andrea a bagful of designer clothes, he remarks, "Every few months or so I clean out the Closet and give this stuff away, and I figured you, uh, might be interested. You're a size six, right? … Yeah, I could tell. Most everyone is a two or smaller, so you're welcome to all of it."

Natalie Miller, senior press officer for the London Ballet (Anna Maxted's Running in Heels) is surrounded by tiny, fine-boned dancers. "I feel bloated, huge," Natalie thinks, eyeing herself in the mirror. (She's gained two pounds, giving her a "new portly figure.") Halfway through Running in Heels, Natalie realizes that she's anorexic, thanks to some plain talking from her best friend Babs, an "Amazonian" (read: size 12) woman who works as a firefighter.

In Marian Keyes' Sushi for Beginners, London fashion editor Lisa Edwards gets exiled to Dublin to launch a new magazine called Colleen. There she shops in the local market, where her new assistant editor Ashling sees her for the first time: "In fascination, Ashling checked out the contents of the woman's basket. Seven cans of strawberry Slim-Fast, seven baking potatoes, seven apples, and four … five … six … seven individually wrapped little squares of chocolate from the pick'n'mix. … Some irresistable instinct told Ashling that this paltry basketful constituted the woman's weekly shop." Indeed it is: Lisa, exiled in Dublin, still keeps up her high-fashion eating habits. ("She coiled in an armchair, slowly removed the paper, and ran her teeth along the side of the chocolate, shaving away tiny curl after tiny curl, until it was all gone. It took an hour.")

As it turns out, Lisa Edwards isn't the real heroine of Sushi For Beginners. Even though she tries to seduce the handsome manager of Colleen, Ashling—who is described as having "no waist"—gets him instead.

She isn't alone. Although chick lit is filled with calorie counting, there's a moral in all of these books: Don't try to be as thin as a fashion model. Sometimes, the heavy girl gets the guy.

Unfortunately, "heavy" turns out to be a relative term; chick-lit heroines have an unnerving tendency to lose 20 pounds and then declare their independence from society's obsession with weight. In The Devil Wears Prada, Andrea finally quits her job at Runway, goes home, and gains ten pounds: "Now that I no longer had to resort to gulping down a bowl of soup or subsisting on cigarettes and Starbucks alone, my body had adjusted itself accordingly and gained back the ten pounds I'd lost while working at Runway. And it didn't even make me cringe; I believed it when … my parents told me I looked healthy, not fat." (Unless my math is even worse than my calorie intake, Andrea went from 115 pounds to 105 and then back to 115, which means that she still has the circumference of a toothpick.) In Jemima J., size-20 Jemima meets a gorgeous guy named Brad on the Internet and tells him that she's thin and beautiful. When he insists on meeting her, she loses 97 pounds, exercises herself into sleekness, gets blond highlights, and flies to California. Unfortunately, it turns out that Brad is having a fling with his enormously fat personal assistant; he wants Jemima around only as a trophy, because he owns a gym and needs a California-thin girlfriend to improve his public profile. ("Is it possible that men would have found me attractive then, despite being hugely overweight?" Jemima gasps.) Enlightened, Jemima allows her weight to soar back up: "Jemima is no longer skinny," the epilogue tells us, "no longer hardbodied, no longer obsessed with what she eats. Jemima Jones is now a voluptuous, feminine, curvy size 10 who is completely happy with how she looks." (A "voluptuous" size 10?)

Even the occasional author who breaks this mold displays an unseemly preoccupation with food. Jennifer Crusie's Bet Me makes a valiant effort to demonstrate that size-14 Minerva Dobbs is truly attractive. "Her lips were full and soft," Crusie writes, chronicling the gradual realization of hero Cal Morrisey that big is beautiful, " … smooth milky skin, wide-set dark eyes, a blob of a nose, and that lush, soft, full, rosy mouth." But while Bet Me insists that eating is good, Min and Cal still treat food like something illicitly delicious, an ecstatic but anarchic pleasure, as naughty and luscious as …

Er, well, as sex. In chick lit, a startling number of carnal liaisons actually take place in restaurants (lobbies, coatrooms, kitchens, and—in one memorable instance—under the table while the waiter is in the middle of listing the chocolate-and-cream-laden dessert specials). And Bet Me's descriptions of Minerva eating come awfully close to food porn. When Cal takes Minerva to his favorite Italian restaurant and tempts her with carbs, he "broke the bread open and the yeasty warmth rose and filled her senses. … She closed her eyes and her lips tight, which was useless. … Cal watched her tear off a piece of the bread and bite into it. 'Oh,' she breathed, and then she chewed it with her eyes shut and pleasure flooding her face. … Her face flushed."

Well, you get the idea. Cal and Min's first kiss involves Krispy Kreme doughnuts ("He popped another piece of doughnut in her mouth and watched as her lips closed over the sweetness. Her face was beautifully blissful, her face soft and pouted, her full lower lip glazed with icing, and as she teased the last of the chocolate from her lip, Cal heard a rushing in his ears. … before she could open her eyes, he leaned in and kissed her, tasting the chocolate"), and later on there's even more explicit stuff involving two dozen Krispy Kremes and a sofa. "I like eating," Natalie's large friend Babs announces in Running In Heels. "Spaghetti with bolognese sauce so rich and thick it glitters—the joy of slurping it, sucking it up from the plate … the juciness, the chewy satisfaction, my teeth ache just to think of it!"

Naughty indeed. Slurping down food is supposed to demonstrate the heroine's evolution into a woman independent of warped social mores. The choice to unwrap a bar of chocolate becomes a kind of conversion to a new world view—one in which weight doesn't matter. So why is eating still so … transgressive?

Behind the rejection of the size-two mentality is a vague groping toward a counterculture existence. All of these writers really want their heroines to live authentically, reject society's false messages, and march to a different drummer. "Looks are nothing!" Natalie's Amazonian friend Babs shouts at her, while Natalie's mouth drops open. "Estee Lauder and her zillion-dollar cosmetics dynasty. … all our cosmetically perfect film stars. … a million airbrushed cover girls … nothing!" But although Natalie and her chick-lit sisters are supposed to be evolving into truly independent women—mature, adult women with minds of their own, who aren't slavishly copying cover models—chick lit doesn't seem to have any idea what they're supposed to be instead.

These hapless heroines could ask their mothers what a grown woman is supposed to be like. Unfortunately, chick-lit mothers are almost universally evil: fashion-obsessed, bitter, unloving weight police. Jemima's mother "never seems to ask about Jemima's work, her friends, her social life. She always asks about her weight. … Her mother wants a slim beautiful daughter who will be the envy of all her neighbors. … What she doesn't want is what she's got. A daughter … of whom she's ashamed." Finally Jemima has an epiphany: "I will never make her happy. … Nothing I ever do is destined to please her." So much for Mom, who never reappears in the book. In Bet Me, we learn right up front (page 5) that the only thing Min has ever done to please her mother is get the flu and lose ten pounds; when Min's mother finally makes an appearance in the book, she points an "imperious, French-manicured hand" at Min's flab and reminds her not to eat any butter before the wedding. By page 26 of Sushi For Beginners, Lisa's mother has been called "an interfering old cow" (and worse). "My mother's satisfaction at seeing me eat while she abstains makes me want to slap her," snaps anorexic Natalie in Running In Heels.

So what do women want to be?

They don't want to be fat, although they'd like to be muscular. They don't want to be skeletally thin, although life tends to be better toward that end of the spectrum. They don't want to be obsessed with designer shoes, although they'd like to have a pair or two in the closet for special occasions. They don't want to be their mothers, although they'd like to get married and have children while being as little like their parents as possible. Missing any model of what a grown woman can be, these novels are stuck with a list of negatives. The result is a pathetic attempt to give women a positive self-image by chronicling (in vivid detail) everything society wants them to be and then scolding, "No, no, no." As a result, chick lit is about as life-affirming as a penal code—the entertainment equivalent of evangelizing by telling prospective converts all the things God doesn't want them to do any more.

Chick-lit authors may be trying to resist, but they don't know what to put in the place of that skeletal fashion-magazine cover model. The cover-model ideal is warped and twisted, but they can't manage to unwarp it. I'm reminded of J. R. R. Tolkien's orcs, who (according to the Silmarillion) were modeled on elves by the dark powers; they were fashioned "by slow arts of cruelty … in envy and mockery," because dark powers can only warp and twist, not create afresh. If you've never seen an elf, and you try to work backwards from an orc to its model, you're darn well not going to end up with Orlando Bloom.

The great rejecting-false-society scenes in chick lit are almost laughable in their failure. In The Devil Wears Prada, Andrea finally realizes how "delusional" the world of fashion writing is, defies her boss, and goes home to become a writer. At the book's end, she gets her heart's desire: the editor of Seventeen falls in love with her prose and hires her. (I think we're maybe supposed to think of Seventeen as a huge step up from a fashion magazine, but as far as I'm concerned we're still trying to make elves out of orcs here.) "Jemima Jones," announces Jane Green in the epilogue to Jemima J., "… never dared to believe that one of these days fate would actually take the time and trouble to pick her out from the crowd and smile upon her. But fairy tales can come true. … If we trust in ourselves, embrace our faults, and brazen it out with courage, strength, bravery, and truth, fate may just smile upon us too." Well, actually, Jemima Jones went on a water fast, bleached her hair, and was rewarded with marriage to a TV star. Far from rejecting society's twisted standards, Jemima gets exactly what she wants by playing society's game, and then announcing (once she's won the game) that she's superior to the rules. That's not countercultural behavior. It's just plain bad manners.

Like the dark powers of Middle Earth, these novelists can't create life; they have no picture of Eve before the fall. And they're not very good at unwarping, either. After reading 15 chick-lit novels in a row, I had a mental itch; Eve-like, I was pathetically aware of all of those things which I had just been told, sternly (and in great detail), that I really shouldn't think about. Andrea's shallow coworkers laugh at her Nine West shoes! (Now I'm embarrassed to wear mine to New York for my next editorial meeting.) You can still be beautiful even if you're a size ten! (I went on a diet halfway through my fourth chick-lit tome.)

According to recent news articles in Publishers Weekly and The Christian Science Monitor, Christian publishers are just getting ready to jump on the tail-end of the chick lit bandwagon as it disappears into the distance. Will Christian chick lit manage to unwarp its secular model? The books haven't yet hit the stores, but early reports are not encouraging. "Imagine a Bridget Jones who tallies calories, but not sex partners," the Monitor reports, and quotes Zondervan editor Karen Ball: "There are a lot of readers who like these books but prefer [their chick lit] to be tamer." If Christians can learn anything from chick lit, it ought to be that lists of negatives never produce good original work. Authors and editors who haven't yet figured this out should be sentenced to read the Silmarillion (the whole thing) before eating any more chocolate.

Susan Wise Bauer is the author most recently of The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had (Norton).

Books discussed in this essay:

  • Jennifer Crusie, Bet Me (St. Martin's Press, 2004).
  • Jane Green, Jemima J. (Broadway Books, 2000).
  • Kelly James-Enger, Did You Get the Vibe? (Kensington, 2003).
  • Marian Keyes, Sushi For Beginners (William Morrow, 2003).
  • Anna Maxted, Running in Heels (HarperCollins, 2001).
  • Jennifer Weiner, Good In Bed (Washington Square Press, 2001).
  • Lauren Weisberger, The Devil Wears Prada (Doubleday, 2003).

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