Fat Books & Thin Women


My 11 Days with Emily Giffin

As a reader who’s been known to rail against “chick lit” as a worthy genre (this despite my weakness for the film equivalents of the books), it is with some shame that I admit I spent eleven full days doing little but reading the oeuvre of Emily Giffin. I know, I know; the distanced tone I’m trying to take here doesn’t exactly fit with the fact that I spent a week and a half devouring her books, forgetting to shower until nearly 4 PM every afternoon (this being when my water goes out), and littering my talk of Albania after the fall of Communism* with references to Giffin’s characters.

I gave Something Borrowed and Something Blue their own reviews on the blog. I was surprised, and really pleased, by how much I enjoyed the two books. Reading them, I felt like I was watching TV – but a clever show, one that delved effectively and sometimes movingly into its characters’ psyches. I might have felt a little ill by the time I finished the books, but that was as much due to the speed with which I flipped pages on the Kindle (I never knew you could tire out a thumb…you can) as to the content of the books. Rachel and Darcy weren’t always likeable characters, but I was able to maintain a certain admiration for them because they were both women with a focus on their careers and on bettering themselves, regardless of what dudes might be hanging around them. Rachel may have been the more sympathetic of the two (mainly because it’s so easy to see myself in her; she lives in a crummy studio apartment, hates her job, and for most of her thirty years is a total failure, romantically speaking**), but both women were so carefully drawn by Giffin that it was hard not to be sucked in by their romantic plights.

As I kept reading Giffin’s works – the other three being Baby Proof, Love the One You’re With, and Heart of the Matter – they began to blend together. Also, I began to suspect that my constant queasiness wasn’t only the result of my sore thumb and inability to tear myself away from the novels long enough to head out on milk and cereal and water runs, but of the novels themselves. The freshness that marked Giffin’s first two novels mostly disappears in her later works. The women in them still feel real, and they’re not bad people to spend a few hours with, but the situations Giffin was writing about seemed increasingly contrived.

Love the One You’re With is probably the best of the bunch, following a recently married woman who runs into her first love on the street, then attempts to negotiate her feelings about this man (who suddenly seems to want her, and care about her, in a way he never did while they were together) and about the compromises she has to make as part of a married couple. In Baby Proof there’s the seemingly well-adjusted and committed married couple who fall apart, and push through the quickest divorce on record, after the husband inexplicably decides that after over thirty years of not wanting children, he does, and becomes kind of an asshat when pushing his wife to want a baby as well. Heart of the Matter is unique among Giffin’s novels for alternating chapters between two women, but the event on which the plot hinges – that the six-year-old son of one of these women falls into a campfire while at a sleepover, somehow managing to burn one side of his face and the opposite hand badly enough that he has to stay over a month in the hospital, and return for repeated follow-up surgeries – is shaky and hard to trust.

I think what it was, though, wasn’t so much what was happening in these novels, as what Giffin’s women began to look like. She has the habit of bringing former characters back in minor walk-on roles, presumably to allow her readers the pleasure of seeing where everyone wound up years later. (Not unlike the lame epilogue J.K. Rowling tacked on to the final Harry Potter book.) Rachel, Darcy, Ethan, Dex – all these characters from earlier books appear unreasonably happy and well-adjusted when Giffin reintroduces them, and this in some essential way cheapens their earlier stories by suggesting that after a few emotionally wrenching months, they are able to settle down to uninterrupted happiness. There’s the fact, too, that Giffin seems to take some pleasure in removing her women from the workforce. Miserable as Rachel was at her job in Something Borrowed, it’s unpleasant (at best) to see her reappear as a contented housewife, hanging out with the kids while Dex is at his high-powered job.

When Giffin writes about her later characters, though, they often struggle with these decisions about work that Rachel apparently has made so easily. Ellen of Love the One You’re With attempts to give up her New York home and career (and, yeah, another thing about Giffin – she gushes about New York like nobody’s business – kind of cheap, but also appealing to someone like me who sometimes gets mopey and misses the States on rainy days) to live with her husband Andy in Atlanta, Georgia, but fails miserably as she realizes that she isn’t happy in the life that Andy is happy with, or that Andy’s sister and her best friend is happy with. Tessa, of Heart of the Matter, has given up her job as an English professor to stay home with her children, and the degree to which she feels trapped by her decision is suffocating to the reader as well as the character.

If I read these books for escapism – and what else was I reading them for? – I have to wonder if I preferred Giffin’s earlier books because they were about lives I could better imagine for myself. These were women who were a few years older than me, who were making decisions (about where to work, where to live, who to love and who to settle for) that I can see myself making when I am having my version of Rachel’s thirtieth birthday party. Giffin’s other characters, though, are all a bit too far from me; it’s not that their lives are too good for me to imagine at this stage of my life,*** but that their lives are so far from anything I ever want to imagine for myself. If I was reading Giffin’s novels to escape from the two weeks of rain Tirana saw (seriously. My entire apartment was leaking by the time it let up), the last thing I wanted was to escape to a stifling world of talking with four-year-olds and debating the best way of getting kids into the private preschools that would make their future. Part of me admires and appreciates that Giffin’s characters have changed over time, and that she is not simply writing variations on the same story, told by the same few characters, again and again. But the rest of me – let’s be honest, the bigger part of me – wants exactly that of Giffin. As well-read and culturally advanced as I may claim to be, it turns out that sometimes what I really want is the literary equivalent of Knocked Up**** – a story that I can turn to, again and again, with thanks for its repetitive qualities.*****

* To make myself feel cultured, I allowed forced myself to read Albanian history as a counterpoint to the hundred pages of chick lit I was reading an hour.

** I should here mention that I actually live in a very nice apartment and have a jealousy-inspiring job (to sit around reading about Albania, and sometimes writing about Albania, with regular walking breaks), so what Rachel’s life really reminds me of is when I was 22, living in a poorly placed and tiny apartment in Philly, with a not-exactly-dream-job job.

*** Being a 26-year-old fortunate enough to have lived abroad for coming up on three years, but with no prospects on the husband or baby fronts.

**** Which I have seen, probably, over twenty times by now. It is almost time for me to watch it again! And let me add, here, that one of my dream jobs is to one day be a writer for Judd Apatow’s movies. How to achieve that?

***** With Knocked Up gaining those “repetitive qualities” (I am being so honest today) mostly…okay, entirely…because I’ve seen it so many times.

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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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