Bridget Jones lives satirical extremes

June 21, 1998|By Sarah Vowell | Sarah Vowell,Special to the sun

"Bridget Jones's Diary," Helen Fielding. Viking. 320 pages $22.95.

A description is not an endorsement. Which is why the talk surrounding Helen Fielding's comic novel "Bridget Jones's Diary" so astonishing. Because the book is such a bestseller in England, it invades these shores with a boatload of buzz, quotes along the lines of, "She's me! Bridget Jones c'est moi!" from female readers and critics.

Well, here's who they are: A single, unambitious, incompetent, self-absorbed twit who goofs through life waiting for a man to save her. I can see why readers are quick to laugh with/at such a character, but what a woman with whom to identify!

Do these readers, like the book's protagonist, weigh themselves all day long and in the middle of the night? Do they call their answering machines every five minutes from their offices hoping whatshisname has called? And when they resist the sexual advances of a man who makes it clear he's not interested in an ongoing relationship, do they brag to their friends of their courage as if they've just stood before a tank in Tiananmen Square?

The reason Bridget Jones is a compelling character is that she lives out satirical extremes. Each "diary" entry begins with a pathological list of confessions concerning weight, cigarette and alcohol intake, as well as a hysterically accurate calorie count.

Typical is the entry for August 14 which reads, "131 lbs. (great-turned into lard mountain for [job] interview, also have spot), alcohol units 0, cigarettes many, calories 1575 (but threw up so effectively 400, approx.)." What does that passage tell you? That this character believes the smallest possible weight gain will have more of an effect on her job prospects when her real worry should be that she's unqualified. Are we still identifying? The reason that's funny is because it's satire, not, one would hope, reportage.

One of the endorsements from British readers which accompanies the American edition is from Michael, age 37, who claims, "I never knew my wife's life before I married her - until I read "Bridget Jones's Diary." This howler is clearly grounds for divorce. It's like saying he never understood the perils of luxury travel until he watched "Titanic" or that thanks to the documentarians at "Beverly Hills 90210" he has a real handle on the plight of the American teen.

"Bridget Jones's Diary" is an amusing chronicle of weakness, of self-loathing, of sarcasm. It is dotted with references to the sociological cat fight between "Singletons" and "Smug Marrieds," between childless women and, as Bridget calls them, "power mothers." But still, this is comedy and comedy's laughs come from the darkness of truth and rightly skirt its brighter side.

If this book were nonfiction, and, therefore, to be believed, then feminism has failed and adult females must either choose between bumbling solitude or dumping their dreams onto their infants' teensy shoulders.

Luckily, ladies, this is fiction, not the story (I hope I hope) of your life. So laugh. Enjoy. But identify at all our peril: If this is you then the rest of us are going to have to put out our cigarettes and postpone the cocktail hour and go join N.O.W. or something. And we're just so tired.

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" and a contributing editor to "This American Life" on Public Radio International.

Pub Date: 6/21/98

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