A jitney ride reveals Chic Lit's latest hits

The Argument

Fashionable novels aimed at women come out of the bag for summer.


August 01, 2004|By Clare McHugh | Clare McHugh,Special to the Sun

I'm a fairly regular rider on the Hampton Jitney, the bus service that trendysomethings rely on to shuttle them between Manhattan and the summertime playground on the eastern end of Long Island known as the Hamptons. Glancing around at my fellow passengers in recent months, I've discovered that three renowned authors are enjoying a revival of sorts.

During beach season, the bus fills up with lissome young women who throw their shiny long hair behind their shoulders and, after exhaustive cell-phone discussions of the guys sharing their summer-rental houses, settle in with something to read.

Magazines like US and Cosmo are favorites, but the trip takes two and half hours, so most of the readers eventually crack open a book. And every summer there's one novel all of these women read and a couple of follow-up options for those who've finished the season's hot title.

The buzz-phrase for this genre is Chic Lit -- a subset of Chick Lit, a publishing term for novels aimed at women. What makes these books fashionable is the people who read them and the people who are in them. But there's another common denominator: An uncommon reliance on three classics that I wonder if my Jitney companions have ever read: Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Mitford's The Pursuit of Love and Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Chic Lit protagonists are all in their 20's and early 30's. They live in the swank precincts of contemporary New York, Los Angeles or London. They pursue the ideal man, and, secondarily, a fulfilling career. A lot of space is given over to describing diets, manicures, haircare, gym memberships and wardrobe choices.

This summer's lead title and compulsory Jitney accessory is the bestselling Bergdorf Blondes, by Plum Sykes (Miramax Books, 313 pages, $23.95). The book is impressive for its skillful use of other authors' devices, but pretty dreadful by any other standard.

Sykes, British-born and Oxford-educated, now resides in Manhattan, where she works for Vogue magazine. To Pride and Prejudice, Sykes owes her plotline and several central characters. The protagonist, Moi, a fashion magazine writer in New York, searches for a husband. She's burdened by a lack of fortune, and a mother back in England who has no discretion or taste and is always talking up the nobleman next door as a potential mate. In other words, she's Austen's Mrs. Bennet for a new millennium.

But Bergdorf Blondes is not written with Austen's cool detachment or keen intelligence. The book's voice sounds like an attempted approximation of Nancy Mitford, another Brit. Mitford's The Pursuit of Love, told in the first person, with humor, warmth and a knowing eye, recounts one woman's search for love but is also a memorable portrait of a whole social milieu: landed-class Britain between the wars.

Her book is both hilarious and poignant. Can't blame Sykes for taking Mitford as her inspiration. Too bad the result, updated to 21st century New York, is neither hilarious nor poignant. The jokes are too obvious, the satire too broad. While Sykes spritzes her prose with terms that purport to be current -- "ATM" for a rich boyfriend, "Arizona" as code for a rehab clinic -- genuinely telling insights into the super-wealthy world of private jets or Park Avenue princesses are rare.

And the debt to Capote? The shopper-friendly title, of course. Bergdorf's, the elite New York department store, sits catty-corner from Tiffany's, where Capote sent his winsome heroine, Holly Golightly, when she needed to get her mind off her troubles.

But Sykes, who remains strictly as deep as a dermabrasion, doesn't venture any farther into Capote territory, where dark undercurrents of loneliness and loss are never far away, and where Holly couldn't completely avoid exploitation. That's not to say that Chic Lit is uniformly upbeat. Witness The Second Assistant: A Tale From the Bottom of the Hollywood Ladder by Clare Naylor and Mimi Hare (Viking, 321 pages, $21.95), which echoes Capote's themes.

The setting, a Hollywood talent agency modeled after the powerful Creative Artists Agency, reverberates with excess, corruption and greed. Lizzie, who came to L.A. full of idealism, gradually senses that the only person who can be trusted is Lara, a colleague whose world-weary outlook hides her true kindness and belief in love. The plot is incoherent, the action hard to follow, but as a portrait of Hollywood the novel delivers.

As summer wears on and the rage for Bergdorf Blondes and The Second Assistant fades, the pale pink cover of Something Borrowed by Emily Giffin (St Martin's Press, 322 pages, $21.95), featuring an image of a delectable diamond engagement ring, has begun popping up on the Jitney.

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