Over the past six days, I read four of this summer’s anointed beach books: Twenties Girl, Best Friends Forever, The Wedding Girl, and Hope in a Jar. I did not have the good fortune to read them in their intended setting: near a body of water, preferably accompanied by frothy cocktails and cupcakes. But they did leave me feeling fuzzy in the head nonetheless.
To submit oneself to an onslaught of chick lit—let’s call it what it is—is to enter a universe that revolves almost entirely around gossip, materialism, and romance. It is a world where, like certain upper-middle-class neighborhoods in New York City, adorably old-fashioned names abound: Olivia (in both Hope in a Jar and The Wedding Girl), Milly, Allie, Addie, Isobel, and Esme.
If aliens were to learn of Western culture solely through these books, they would be rightly alarmed at their obsession with wedding dresses, Sephora, Champagne, and men of few words but deep pockets.
Speaking of names, there’s a Sadie in Twenties Girl, which is Sophie Kinsella’s version of a ghost story. Newly single Londoner Lara Lington is visited by the spirit of her recently deceased great-aunt Sadie. There’s a missing necklace, an egomaniacal uncle who owns a Starbucks-like chain, and a dashing American businessman in the mix for intrigue. Kinsella, author of the Shopaholic series, also writes under her real name, Madeleine Wickham. As Wickham, she’s come out with The Wedding Girl, where a naïve 18-year-old marries a gay American friend so he can stay in England, only to realize, just a few days before her wedding to the scion of a wealthy family, that she’s still technically married.
Kinsella’s prolific writing is admirable, but she employs an unsettling economy in her books. For example, the National Portrait Gallery in London figures into both of her summer offerings, as if she can’t be bothered to research more than one locale.
Her books can feel as antiquated as the names she chooses for her heroines. Engaged couples live apart right up to their wedding day and despite the alleged spunkiness of her female characters—usually expressed through drinking too much wine and sneaking the occasional cigarette—the male characters are always in charge. From a discussion of name-changing in The Wedding Girl: “To be honest,” said Simon, “I’d prefer it if we shared a name. We’d be sharing everything else.”
Kinsella deserves some credit for writing a subplot about a gay character coming to terms with his sexuality in The Wedding Girl. Controversial topics aren’t anathema to chick lit, but the darker subplots usually come in small doses. Beth Harbison’s Hope in a Jar deals with sexual abuse and Jennifer Weiner’s Best Friends Forever has date rape.
Both books are about old friends reuniting. In Hope in a Jar, Allie and Olivia, high school best friends who drifted apart after a rumor spread about one of them, make peace at their 20th high-school reunion and help each other overcome various obstacles, all the while sampling a lot of brand-name beauty products. All chick lit suffers from an overload of cultural references, but Harbison is the worst offender, mentioning everything from Steak-Ummms to Denise Austin.
Best Friends Forever’s pair, Valerie and Allie, also inseparable until high school, reconnect after their 15th year high-school reunion, and embark on a road trip as a kind of Thelma & Louise lite. This being a Jennifer Weiner novel, body issues are compulsory; one character is a former fat girl, who, after getting stuck in a diner booth, loses enough weight that she can zip up her knee-high boots all the way over her calf.
While both Weiner and Harbison focus on friends, they still follow the formula that every chick lit book must include a romance. Chick lit is a genre with zero suspense; each book reads like a thriller with only one suspect. If a man is described in the first chapter or two as looking like “Matt Dillon’s better-looking brother” ( Hope in a Jar) or as having a “firm, stocky frame” ( The Wedding Girl) and could plausibly be played by Colin Firth, Hugh Grant, or Ryan Reynolds in the inevitable big-screen adaptation, he is likely the intended.
The books share an alarming number of other similarities. There’s a fierce, borderline agoraphobic allegiance to the hometown. Chick lit heroines have never left the town or city they grew up in. Love interests are either recent transplants or moving back to where they grew up. If you’re a career girl, as they are known in the Kinsella oeuvre, you’re doomed for a life that may seem glamorous on the exterior (jets, cocktail parties, apartments with sweeping views) but it will invariably be deemed cold and empty, missing one crucial element: a man.
The stories are also populated by fairy godmother characters who are old, rich, and wise. Sometimes, as in The Wedding Girl, it is literally a godmother, and others, like in Twenties Girl, it’s the ghost of your dead great-aunt frozen in time as her twentysomething self. Secret and surprise pregnancies abound. And they are always kept.
If aliens were to learn of Western culture solely through these books, they would be rightly alarmed at their obsession with wedding dresses, Sephora, Champagne, and men of few words but deep pockets. Then again, it’s summer, a recession summer at that, where many people have to cancel their weeks at the beach in order to pay their bills. No one should be begrudged literary escapism. For those in search of something weightier, there’s always Infinite Summer, the online book group dedicated to reading David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. But even if we want comfort, it’s too bad that it has to come in such a predictable package.
Marisa Meltzer is coauthor of How Sassy Changed My Life. Her next book Girl Power will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in February.