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Check It Out

Courier Article by Pam Locker
Sunday, April 7, 2002

Beyond Bridget Jones and Ally McBeal

What do today's young, hip, single, heterosexual women want? Judging by media characters Ally McBeal and Bridget Jones, they want rewarding careers, good husbands, and snuggly babies. Is that too much to ask?

My problem with both Ally and Bridget is that they're just too ditsy. A girl can be cute, smart, and appealing and still have some common sense! Here's a selection of novels by and about some savvy young women who manage to maintain some dignity while wrestling with matters of the heart and mind.

Cause Celeb by Helen Fielding (Viking, 2001).

Just released in the United States, this is actually Helen Fielding's first novel. It was published in Britain in 1994 and is based on her experiences filming documentaries in Africa for Comic Relief.

Fielding's protagonist, London literary publicist Rosie Richardson, hatches a plan to reconnect with a wealthy bachelor she fancies, cash in on the Disaster Relief movement, and promote her company by making a "book/food" drop in war-torn Africa. When she returns home, however, she finds her glitzy life to be shallow and unfulfilling and her hoped-for lover to be less than perfect. She goes back to Africa as a relief worker, eventually running a refugee camp faced with famine.

Expect the fun and freshness of "Bridget Jones," but with a more determined and serious-minded heroine.

The Nanny Diaries by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus (St. Martin's Press, 2002).

Currently a bestseller, this is a joint project by two real-life former nannies who skewer the ultra-wealthy Manhattan families that have employed them.

Nanny (whose name we never actually know) is a NYU student trying to make ends meet. In between nanny jobs, she meets her latest desperate employer during a chance encounter in a park and quickly steps in as the mother substitute to 4-year-old Grayer (whom she mercifully dubs "Grover").

For the next nine months she pivots her life around those of Grayer/Grover and his high society parents, enforcing eating rules, supervising play dates, prepping him for his private school entrance exams, and giving him the only true parental love he gets.

Nanny is a strong-willed young woman who juggles school, job, and personal life with insightfulness and humor.

Shanghai Baby by Wei Hui (Pocket Books, 2001).

Banned and burned in China for being "decadent, debauched and a slave of foreign culture," this first novel by the twenty-five year old daughter of a Chinese Army officer has been published in 20 countries worldwide.

Hui's heroine, Coco (after Coco Chanel of course), is part of the bustling Westernized underworld of the immense city of Shanghai. She lives for parties, fun, style, fame, sex, and drugs. Her life, which seems a pale imitation of a real life, is complicated by love and by her writing ambitions.

This novel is raw and sexually explicit, but offers a rare glimpse into a sector of modernized Chinese society.

Backpack by Emily Barr (New York: Plume, 2002).

British writer and columnist Emily Barr took a year off to travel and collect experiences for this first novel.

Barr's character Tansy Harris is a London newspaper reporter and party girl who has followed her mother down the path of addiction. Waking up in the hospital after an overdose the night of her mom's funeral, she resolves to make some changes in her life. When Tansy's current boyfriend, a smug self-centered type, invites her to go on a yearlong backpacking tour of Asia, she accepts, only to have him back out at the last minute. She decides to set out on her own.

Her trip to Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, China, and Tibet is much more Spartan than she anticipated, but she slowly becomes strong and independent, and she makes some lasting and meaningful friendships.

This is undoubtedly the least promoted of all four books, but was a bestseller in Britain. It's well written and worth trying.

Pam Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.