Last time I made an off the cuff comment calling a book chick lit, I realised the skill involved in making an apology sound genuine, rehabilitating an entire literary genre and standing one’s ground in the space of 140 characters. Why do women bristle at the term chick lit? Why do they forget that a literary rendering of the search for Mr. Right isn’t an affront to the feminist dream nor does it preclude sharp social commentary, a racy plot and some great lines?
Jane Austen didn’t look down her nose at it.
So I didn’t roll my eyes on seeing The Book of Summers: the pastels, swirly font and the fey title.
For her debut novel, Emylia Hall, who was raised in Devon by her English father and Hungarian mother, has sensibly decided to write about what she knows.
Prompted by the arrival of a scrapbook and the news of her estranged mother’s death, Beth, a withdrawn thirty-year-old artist living in London, marinades in memories of teenage years split between a dreary life in Devon with her English father and seven glorious summers spent in Hungary with her exotic and glamorous mother.
Recollections of unfamiliar spicy smells, the childish joy of exploring during scorching afternoons and a chaste love-affair with a local boy are interrupted by passages describing her older self coming to terms with the secret that knocked her life off course. Her combination of innocence and perception freshen the coming of age format and the story will keep you gripped—with judicious skimming—till the end. But in an effort to stop us from guessing the much-heralded twist, the dual perspective of child and adult remain frustratingly dislocated. Despite its
setting in the 1990s, we also remain disconnected from any real place or time.
Consider Helen Fielding or Sophie Kinsella. They were particularly good at capturing the spirit of the nineties while talking about what we’re all interested in: sex and relationships. Admittedly, an in-depth discussion of the socio-political ramifications of switching to a free market economy following the People’s Republic is probably asking a little much from The Book of Summers. But rather than mention any historical detail, Hall would prefer to describe the greasy slap of salami on a plate (which unfortunately is not a euphemism).
A 90s phenomenon, chick lit has gone the way of the spaghetti strap. Haunted by the prospect that their hard work could ever be given away free with Cosmopolitan, women who write fiction for women have a tendency to shy away from anything that could be considered frivolous … while still wanting to talk about feelings. It can quickly become a bit earnest and a little indulgent. And this is at odds with a book cover OK-ed by publishers who know that chick lit still sells but obviously don’t quite understand what makes it work and why women like reading it.
In the end, getting preoccupied by gender seems irrelevant. The last book, which nailed the genius of chick lit, was by a man. And it was read by men too. The overrated structural gimmick of One Day didn’t mask David Nicholls’ deft grasp of the basics: a sense of period, a few laughs and some sex, please.