Fat Books & Thin Women


Reviews: Something Borrowed and Something Blue

Emily Giffin’s Something Borrowed and Something Blue provide an interesting contrast when it comes to the question of what makes a piece of chick lit a success. In both novels the narrators’ voices are remarkably fresh; both are driven more by the interior than by external events; and both take as their subjects not just the search for love, but the attempt to define and maintain female friendships.

Something Borrowed, Giffin’s first book, is the better of the two. The novel opens with a surprise 30th birthday party for a Manhattan lawyer, Rachel, thrown by her long-term best friend, Darcy. Darcy is engaged to a friend of Rachel’s from law school, Dex, and it is nearly inevitable that Rachel and Dex should end up carrying out an affair behind Darcy’s self-absorbed back. Giffin’s decision to push the reader to sympathize with Rachel, a woman cheating with her best friend’s fiance, is a unique one, and works because the subject of the novel is not just this affair, but also how Rachel has for years been defined and constrained by her friendship with Darcy. It’s possible – and not just possible, but appealing – to sympathize with Rachel because: (1) she is guilt-ridden over her affair with Dex and tries, a couple of times, to end it (I mean, these are weak attempts, but still); (2) Darcy is, to put it bluntly, a self-centered bitch, the sort of woman who is always the best-looking person in the room, knows it, and uses it to her advantage; (3) for most of the novel it seems that Dex is going to wimp out and marry Darcy even though he seems not to really love her, because it is the “right” thing to do.

And, it works! The novel works! It is a fun read, one of those books you’ll read in a day while sitting in a bus or on a beach. The risks Giffin takes in pushing us to identify with the woman who would usually be cast as the villain in such a novel makes this story fresh, and Rachel and Dex become characters we sympathize with almost against our will. Moreover, unlike so many women we see in chick lit and romantic comedies, Rachel has a real job. You know, she goes to work every day, the thought of her boss alternately sickens and terrifies her, and she lives in a crummy studio apartment instead of Carrie Bradshaw-like digs. Rachel reads like a real woman, with her sympathetic presentation aided by comparison to Darcy’s patently unrealistic and blessed life.

In the follow-up novel, Something Blue, Giffin follows a recently impregnated Darcy around Manhattan in the wake of her loss of fiance and best friend. Unlike Rachel, Darcy’s a hard woman to sympathize with – not least because one way Giffin made Rachel relatable in the previous book was by making Darcy so unrelatable. After arriving in New York and working at a bar for a few weeks, she landed a cushy job in PR – a job she won because of her looks. She views her unplanned pregnancy with one of Dex’s college friends as a sort of glamorous story that can overshadow the collapse of her seven-year relationship and the cancellation of her wedding, and manipulates Dex’s friend into a relationship he doesn’t want.

Giffin doesn’t have a real strength for the unexpected, but that’s not what we’re coming to Something Blue for. Darcy is such an impossible character that we know, from the beginning, that redemption is in store for her. When she travels to London to visit Ethan, her first boyfriend (in the fifth grade) and one of Rachel’s best friends, loaded down with countless bags and dreams about the British husband she’s going to nab while abroad, there’s little question that things won’t go as she expects, that her endless shopping sprees will at some point come to a halt. Giffin does an admirable job maintaining Darcy’s voice even as her character changes, drastically, but the story as a whole is hackneyed. Whatever changes Darcy makes while she’s in London, whoever influences her life while she’s there, she ultimately owes all her self-improvement to her pregnancy, to being forced to truly care for another life.

That said, Something Blue offers pleasurable moments, if not as many as its predecessor. Giffin has a skill for exploring her characters’ interior lives, and for moving the plot along although most of the action is taking place in the form of a long-running, internal debate. Her generally clean prose has its false steps, as when one character is described as having “curly, full lips.” On the whole, though, these books are great examples of what can be done within the confines of the chick lit genre. Giffin’s women, true, end up with men at the end of both novels, but they have worries other than men, and their attempts to change and better understand themselves are as much focused on their interior lives and self-development as on the men around them.

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8 Comments

I agree that Giffin is a shining star in the “women’s fiction” genre. I don’t read much chick lit, and I have an even lower tolerance for cheating (in real life or in fiction), which makes the fact that I legitimately enjoyed Something Borrowed all the more surprising. I give Giffin all the credit for taking a difficult premise, turning it on its head, and making her readers sympathise with its unlikely hero and heroine. Having seen the execrable film, it’s clear a large part of the novel’s charm stems from Giffin’s authorial talents.

Comment by Steph

Yeah, I’m sure that I couldn’t have pulled that off. I’m reading one of Giffin’s other books right now (with, hey!, more cheating – not to suggest that this is a constant theme in her novels, only 2 out of the 5). I’m only halfway through, but so far the whole thing isn’t coming off as well as it did in Something Borrowed – which really highlights, for me, how incredible it is that she took this affair, which is pretty morally indefensible, and made us sympathize with it and want to see it work. I’ll see if she can pull it off with her newest novel…in either case, I’ll be impressed that she did it so well in her first novel.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Excellent post on two books I really enjoyed! Giffin definitely has a handle on the interior lives and friendships of women, I loved both books when I read them years ago. I agree that Something Borrowed was the stronger of the two, though I liked seeing Darcy in a different light in the follow-up.

Comment by Meg

I’ve been reading Giffin’s other books in the past week (just. can’t. stop.) and these two are still my favorite. The female friendships are a huge theme in all of her books, but I think she does it best in these first two…it’s a pretty great picture of how our friendships shape us, and how they change over time (and how they NEED to change over time).

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I completely agree with how you reviewed this. I’m really not a fan of “genre” labeling of books (maybe because there isn’t really a “dick lit” category) although I understand the “chick lit” genre and I usually go with the “if a book cover is pink, it’s chick lit” mentality when I’m in the bookstore. However, Something Borrowed and Something Blue were great reads. I quite enjoyed myself the whole time. I think the characters actually had depth and cared for things more than men and wedding rings.

I have to admit I liked Something Blue better because I so loathed Darcy in Something Borrowed and to have my opinion changed in just 300 pages is remarkable by Giffin.

So, so, so agree.

Comment by Cassie

Ahh, yes, the labeling. I really try to avoid this but with chick lit (and this is probably a simple expression of my prejudices; ie, I find it more acceptable to be seen reading “dick lit” [mystery novels, horror stories, spy novels? what would land in this category? i know so many women who read all these types ofnovels] than books with pink covers. Which is pretty lame, since the past week or so has taught me that I will totally swoon over certain of these pink-covered books) I always end up calling it…well, chick lit, despite all the things I have read about how “lowering” this is of the genre and of the idea of fiction aimed at women. Ugh!

And yeah, I can see what you mean about how Darcy is so totally reshaped in Something Blue…it is a pretty impressive feat, and I like to imagine Giffins setting out on the writing of that book, gritting her teeth as she struggles to change what millions of readers think about this character. Even though I whine about Darcy a bit in the review, I have to admit that by the second half of the book I was melting a little bit – you know, SO desperate for her and Ethan to just GET TOGETHER ALREADY!

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

So glad that you liked Something Borrowed. I also really appreciated that Rachel had a real job and a regular studio apartment. She still lived in New York City, an overused setting in my opinion, but at least NYC wasn’t over-glamorized.

Comment by Christy

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