BRIDGET JONES: MAD ABOUT THE BOY
By Helen Fielding
Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95, 390 pages
News of the publication of "Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy" will thrill everyone who loved Helen Fielding's two earlier Bridget Jones novels. Unfortunately, Bridget's allure has palled. And, yes, it has to be said that it's because she's older. Then, too — and perhaps more crucially — times have changed.
Bridget Jones first appeared in the English newspaper The Independent in 1995 as a series of diary entries. All were headed by notes on how many calories, cigarettes and alcohol units she had consumed the day before — and invariably it was masses more than she had intended. Bridget had other problems, too. She was congenitally late. She slept with people she had vowed not to sleep with. She was in her 30s, wanted a stable relationship with a man and was anxious because she hadn't pulled it off. She dealt with these troubles by making good resolutions while munching through bags of chocolates. On the plus side, she was witty and fun and had lots of friends, all of whom faced similar issues, especially about boyfriends.
When Bridget's diaries took novel form in "Bridget Jones' Diary" (1996) and "Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason" (1999), the books sold 15 million copies. They were a hoot, yes, but still, what was it about Bridget's ditziness that appealed so widely? Ms. Fielding suggested that it was because she highlighted "the gap between how we feel we are expected to be and how we actually are." Certainly anybody who started the day vowing to eat and smoke less only to end it having scaled new heights of calorie and cigarette consumption could find blessed relief in reading about Bridget's faithfully recorded weaknesses. However, since like any other romantic heroine she eventually got her man, she validated her readers' shortcomings rather than censured them.
In hindsight there was perhaps more. When the first two Bridget Jones novels appeared in the mid-'90s, the 20th century was losing its grip. The Berlin Wall was down. Cold War was ending. In Britain, Margaret Thatcher had been booted out. Things seemed to be loosening up, so we didn't have to be secretive about private angst. If personal lives were a teensy bit chaotic, so what? The new millennium was in sight. Things would be better. We could hope for change.
It's not the same now, and that perhaps explains why Ms. Fielding's latest novel, "Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy," lacks the energy of the earlier novels. Bridget is a 51-year-old widow with two children in elementary school. We meet her in a fog of grief about her husband's death four years earlier, promising to lose weight and get a career going. Urged on by Talitha, a friend in television, and her old pal Jude — now a big wheel in finance, but still disorganized about her love life — Bridget writes a screenplay based on "Hedda Gabbler" [sic] by Anton Chekhov. (That's "Hedda Gabler" by Henrik Ibsen to you and me.) Improbably, it's taken seriously by a film company. Less improbably, Bridget meets 30-year old Roxster and has a lovely affair that occasions only minor hassles with her children and their nanny.
Recording all this takes 386 pages, during which attention often flags.
There's just not a lot of tension. The head notes show that Bridget's calorie counting is quite successful; she loses a bunch of weight, and the ups and downs with Roxster never add more than a pound or two here and there. Cigarettes have disappeared from her life, thanks to nicotine gum. She still sometimes drinks a bit too much, but now her worst problems are technological. She gets obsessed with Twitter and the number of her followers. But counting them appeals less to shared secret anxieties than counting the calories, cigarettes and alcohol units of Bridget's earlier days. While the affair with Roxster raises some questions about age differences, it never remotely raises the conflicts of her relationships with Daniel Cleaver and Mark Darcy in the earlier books.
Then there's the historical issue. "Bridget Jones Diaries" took romantic comedy beyond will-he-won't-he plots and added psychosocial questions about self-worth and personal success. The novel was funny, but it was edgy, too, and lots of other novelists followed Ms. Fielding down the chick-lit path she had helped pioneer. The latest novel is not so witty, nor does it broach new ground. Plus we have our own problems. We are not in the mood we were in during the '90s. It's a long time until another new century appears on the horizon, and in the meantime, we are looking at economic and political problems that seem unyielding. The difficulties of a well-heeled widow just don't tap the wells of indulgence that the younger Bridget mined.
Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.