Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Shopaholic With a Bun in the Oven

I’ve fallen behind in my Shopaholic reading. After Becky took Manhattan, I got off the bandwagon, citing two major sources of discontentment with the series:

1) The Heart-Attack Factor: The premise of these books is that Becky is a likable ne’er-do-well who is constantly getting herself into trouble by (a) overspending, and (b) lying herself into a corner. Both of these traits may result in hilarious mishaps and convoluted plot twists, but I find them incredibly stressful. Instead of laughing uproariously, I’m gripping the book tightly, my heart racing. It’s bad for my blood pressure. It’s especially bad for bedtime reading, resulting in more than one case of insomnia. In the end, it’s just not worth it – the series’ charms were not enough to outweigh the health risks.

2) The Inevitable Relapse Factor: The formula for the series requires Becky to spend herself into the red, make several doomed attempts to recoup her losses, and then Reform. And that poses a problem: the happy ending of the first book is inevitably exposed as illusory so that the same formula can be followed in the second book. After awhile, the happy ending becomes less-than-usually credible, and the inevitable relapse becomes just a bit too predictable.

Based on those two objections, I stopped reading the series after The Shopaholic Takes Manhattan. When Shopaholic and Baby appeared on the Random House catalogue for spring books, however, I decided to give it a chance. As a friend of mine pointed out, the series has become less stressful since Becky married Luke (Moneybags) Brandon. Now that Becky’s excesses are backed by an apparently bottomless well of finances, the letters that appear between chapters are coolly disapproving missives from bankers who advise against her investment plans rather than increasingly urgent notices from creditors and collection agencies.

Having read the latest installment, I’ll concede that Sophie Kinsella has exercised a reasonable amount of creativity in order to avoid the Inevitable Relapse pitfall. I haven’t read Shopaholic and Sister, but I like the premise: Becky is forced to confront – and eventually befriend – her nemesis, a thrifty, idealistic, granola-crunching sister, who is likable despite her pedantry, just as Becky is likable despite her compulsive lying. That’s a far more interesting foil than the usual snobby high-brow bitch (whose presence is necessary in order to explain why intelligent, successful men keep marrying these heroines who have nothing to offer aside from their chronic insecurity and low-brow street-cred). I love Mark Darcy and I love Bridget Jones, but I’m never entirely convinced that he would marry her, except in a world where the only alternative is to marry beautiful but cold-hearted snobs named Natasha.

When I picked up the book, I expected it (for some reason) to be about Becky and her baby. I expected to see her compulsively buying up gadgets and videos, hoping to keep the baby entertained, much as I did when the Bub was a newborn. I’m no shopaholic: I consider buying shoes to be something of a chore, and even clothes-shopping isn’t what it used to be anymore. But motherhood made me a shopper: I scoured toy stores and baby shops, hunting for the magic bullet that would make this gig a bit easier.

The book, as it turns out, isn’t about that. The baby doesn’t show up until the final chapter, and then it functions as the happy-ending bringer, when the wonders of motherhood wean Becky (temporarily, I’m sure) away from the thrill of shopping. The novel follows Becky’s pregnancy, but it isn’t really a novel about a pregnant woman either: Becky is spry and energetic, with a trim little tummy that rarely gets in the way of her fashion sense. Considering that this genre of chick-lit is based almost entirely on identification with the heroine’s imperfections, I found this a little hard to take.

What I liked about the book, though, was its insight that shopping, for Becky, is about knowledge. Her shopaholism isn’t driven by vanity, greed, or even materialism – it’s a body of knowledge that she is driven to acquire, a knowledge not only of what is currently fashionable, but also of where to find it. (One plot line even involves Becky hiring a private detective to track down where her assistant gets her eyebrows done, as if to highlight the way fashion functions as a knowledge economy.)

High fashion is a world Becky inhabits as a kind of researcher, acquiring expertise and wielding it generously. In this case, her knowledge saves the failing department-store at which she works: Becky has an unfailing instinct for consumerism, one that she can use to create a successful business plan. For her, the biggest challenge of pregnancy is her ignorance of the baby-fashion business: she is appalled, early in the novel, to discover that she has reached the fifth month of pregnancy yet somehow remained wholly unaware of the existence of "Baby in Urbe", a top infant-fashion line.

Intentionally absurd as this is, it echoed my own experience of pregnancy – the sinking feeling of incompetence that would overcome me when I considered things like Snugli carriers and Lamaze toys. The sheer array of products is anxiety-inducing; those shelves stocked with exersaucers and bottle systems serve as a visible sign of our dangerous ignorance. How will I manage to look after a baby if I can’t even learn how to fold and unfold a stroller? How will I meet my baby’s needs if I don’t have a bottle-warmer, or even realize that one is necessary?

This isn’t a novel about babies, or pregnancy, but it is a novel about shopping for babies, and as such it allowed me to revisit that anxious version of myself, and sigh a little in relief that I’ve outgrown her.

27 comments:

Alpha DogMa said...

I read three of Kinsella's books and then vowed to give up until they publish "The Shopaholic and The Therapist Who Teaches Becky to Stop Self-Medicating Her Personality Disorder by Shopping After Which She Develops Self Esteem and a Healthy Outlook On Life." Finally, some personal growth for Becky!

Kyla said...

I haven't read any of these books yet. I can't decide if they sound like my cup of tea.

Suz said...

I've never read any of these books just because I don't do really well with most "chick-lit" due to my periodic desire to slap the supposed heroine upside the head. However, I love your recognition of shopping as a body of knowledge, one that might be of questionable use, sure, but a subject all the same.

gingajoy said...

I've not read any in the series, though I am a serious chick lit addict (Jane Green is a big favorite). Candy. The way you describe feeling when reading these books is how I felt when I read The Devil Wore Prada, though. It just completely stressed me out--how stressed and overworked she was. Completely. Might have to try a few Kinsella's though.

Mimi said...

First, you don't like shopping for shoes? Huh. I love shoes: shoes fit even on fat days. Except when you're pregnant and all you can wear are flip flops.

Second, oh how I identify with that standing in the baby products aisle, feeling completely unequal to parenting on the basis of my total ignorance of which kind of ... towel, bottle, toy, bedding, crib monitor, everything everything. So overwhelming, so expensive, so heavy, so much an index of all the incompetence I was feeling.

Third, I read the first shopaholic and had the heart attack reaction. Debt isn't funny! I was very anxious.

Is it easier with a second baby?

slouching mom said...

The mark of a good reviewer is that she can inspire interest in a book that a reader would never, never in a million years, think he or she would like.

So: you're a good reviewer! I might have to buy a book of hers!

I just hope you, because you think so well and so deeply, didn't bring more complexity to the books than exists. Should I be worried about that?

Sign me confused.

bubandpie said...

Mimi - Yeah, really. I just actually hate buying shoes. I usually buy about one pair every two years, and breathe a sigh of relief that it's over.

"Is it easier with a second baby?" So, so, so much easier. The discomforts of pregnancy are a lot less fun the second time around, but the psychological torture aspects are WAY easier to handle.

SM - I pride myself on my ability to bring complexity to anything - so worry as much as you like. ;p

Mad Hatter said...

Each time I take a freezing cold wipe and drag it across my daughter's tooshie, I think of all the fearful tittering on my iVillage bulletin board as to whether a wipes warmer was necessary for the layette.

I don't think I'm ever doing this baby gig again but if I do I will be so relieved to dismiss the idea of a wipes warmer outright. Motherhood, at the very least, has given that much common sense.

kgirl said...

I'm sure I'll be reading this one. But can anybody remember what sophie's sister's name is? I've been told that her stuff is even better.

Jenifer said...

I have read the entire Shopaholic series and must say I had to admit that I have outgrown Becky. I still love her, but the relationship has lost it's glow.

I would still read another in the series though, I am like that.

B&P have you read Kinsella's other two books with other characters? She has two other books that are not part of the Shopaholic series. I have read both, "Can You Keep a Secret?" and "The Undomestic Goddess" they are both good, in that fun, light way.

kgirl asked about her sister. Her real life sister is Gemma Townley and I have read: "When in Rome..." and "Little White Lies: A Novel of Love and Good Intentions"

They were both good, light, fun reads. I am not sure I would say they are better than the Kinsella books, but they were certainly enjoyable.

Em said...

I admire you for perserving with this series. I gave up after #1.

Catherine said...

Hmmm. I haven't read any of these - they didn't strike me as "my type" - but who knows? Maybe I will....

Blog Antagonist said...

Color me clueless...I've never even heard of this series. How is that? Based on the title alone, it's not likely I would ever pick this book up, but you've piqued my interest. I may have to try one just to see.

Bon said...

clearly, you can make anything interesting when you write about it. :)

shopping as a knowledge economy is fascinating and exactly how i feel, still, everytime i visit the infant section of a major store. my child is quickly outgrowing infancy, but the products change and rebrand so quickly that i'm still discombobulated by half of them, totally clueless as to what they're for, and immediately (if briefly) panicked about what i've deprived O of in not providing them for him.

then i get over it, but it's still ick. rather like the stress you describe reading about Shopaholic's debt levels.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

I didn't do a lick of shopping for my kid until he was three months old. Seriously. One of my sister's friends had a baby and he just played with sticks and she carried him everywhere, no stroller/bjorn/sling. I so admired that. Then at 3 months my son was driving me NUTS with his need to be entertained and I bought a swing, a johnny jump-up and like 800 chew toys. All from Amazon.com!

I hadn't heard of this series. Like your other commenters, I bow to your ability to make everything sound so fascinating!

Lady M said...

I only got seven pages into the first Shopaholic book, because as you said, the STRESS was intense. I was getting too worried about her being able to afford the stupid scarf, and decided I needed to stop reading for my sanity.

Beck said...

We owned NOTHING for our first baby! Well, we bought a crib, which very nicely held the laundry for us until she moved into it at 11 months old. We had a loaned skeleton crew of necessities, and everything else we just did without... although she did still seem to amass a giant pile of baby toys and board books by the end of her first year. So warmed wipes? Not so much.

Becky said...

I loved the Shopaholic series when it first came out! A friend of mine at work got me addicted to them... otherwise I probably would never have even picked the first one up.

I'm actually in the middle of reading Shopaholic & Baby now. I read these sorts of books when my brain needs a vacation... and my brain was in BAD need of a vacation! LOL!

I agree that the formula is starting to get a bit predictable and boring and I have even found that I'm not quite as into it as I was in the past. In fact, I have several other books waiting for me to finish this one and they are beginning to look more preferable.

But I hate to start a book and not finish it unless I ABSOLUTELY hate it, so I'll probably wipe it out in the next week or so and then I'll be on to something else.

Becky said...

PS... I tagged you for a meme over at my blog, if you're up for it (or haven't already done it).

Angela said...

I enjoyed the series, though you are right, the plot and storylines are rather predictable. I think the reason I loved them so much is that I am the opposite of Becky, I really don't like to shop and I get stressed when I feel like I've overspent, I can read the books and just laugh and enjoy them.

You should read Shopaholic and Sister, it's definitely my favourite, her sister is hilarious and is the polar opposite of Becky in terms of values, shopping and consumerism, the situations are so wacky and outrageous.

Lawyer Mama said...

I have the same stressful response to Becky and her shenanigans and yet I keep reading. ARGH! I can understand her panic at being clueless about baby shopping, because it mirrors our panic at being clueless about babies in general. (At least that's how it was for me.) When a friend with children took a look at my registry and so, "Oh no, honey, you haven't registered for even half of what you need!" I started to panic about pregnancy, not just the shopping. What the heck did hubby and I know about kids? What were we thinking?

So I'm sure I'll buy Shopaholic and Kid when it comes out. I'm a glutton for punishment.

Diane J. said...

Here by way of BooMama. :-)

I enjoyed my visit, especially the books meme and the music meme.

Diane

NotSoSage said...

Hmm, I've never even had an inkling that I would enjoy these books, mainly because the idea that someone would write a book revelling in someone's lack of control around spending would make me (a) sick, (b) frustrated (c) nervous.

I like the way you frame it as a need for knowledge and put it in the context of your much-more-rational feelings of being like a fish-out-of-water. But I don't think it'll convince me to read the book. I'm much too much like the character's granola-crunching sister.

PeanutButtersMum said...

I think I outgrew her around the same stage as you... I just found it all too hard to swallow. Not "bitter-sweet," but more "bitterLY sweet." Gag-licious, actually... ;-)

org junkie said...

Visiting from Boomama's. I love the shopaholic series so of course was fasinated by your review. Wow that was impressive! I'm waiting for the library to bring in this new book and can't wait!

Thanks!
Laura

Jen said...

I've read a couple of the books in the Shopaholic series, and, like you, found them pretty hard to take -- part stress, and part disbelief. That being said, one of my favorite books is Sophie Kinsella's "Can You Keep a Secret", which was laugh-out-loud funny. Still light chick-lit but worth the read.

ewe are here said...

I've read the Shopaholics books as well. Rather enjoyable, especially when you're tired and just want something light and amusing. Your review of her books are dead on. I always enjoy your book reviews.