independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy review: 'A Clunking disappointment'

Helen Fielding's Mad About the Boy, her final farewell to Bridget Jones, falls as flat as its heroine's famously overcooked spaghetti

Bridget Jones reappears as a widow in Helen Fielding's new novel 'Mad About the Boy'
Bridget Jones reappears as a widow in Helen Fielding's new novel 'Mad About the Boy'

Calories 2,600. Minutes spent reading 240. Minutes spent laughing 10. Packets of chocolate biscuits consumed 3.

(v.bad) Bridget Jones was the poster girl for a generation. She invented a vocabulary: singletons, smug marrieds, emotional f***wits. And a way of thinking: “9st 4. Terrifying slide into obesity – why, why?”

I loved her like a soul sister, seeing in the floundering chaos of her search for love (in the shape of her own Mr Darcy) a more comic and clever reflection of the floundering chaos of my own life and that of my friends. Even if we weren’t exactly like Bridget, she was recognisably one of us – and her diary, with its daily italics and endless lists, made us laugh.

The news that Helen Fielding was bringing back Bridget after a 14-year silence created a real sense of anticipation: but Mad About the Boy is a clunking disappointment.

The clue to the problem lies in the title. Bridget, now 51, is not struggling with her happy- ever-after with the wonderful Mark – not battling with the transformation of passion into marriage, which might actually have made a brilliant novel.

Instead, Mark has died five years before this tome begins, leaving her a large fortune and two small children to bring up alone. She is a Born Again Virgin, once more obsessing about weight, looks, sex, and her new toy boy Roxster - this time with nits and the school run getting in her way.

But the tone is all wrong. Reading the first two thirds of Mad About the Boy is like listening to someone who once had perfect pitch, but now can’t sing a note. It lies as flat on the page as its heroine’s overcooked spaghetti. Every line feels full of effort:

“Gaaah. Cannot have Roxster coming over when we have to nit comb everyone and wash all the pillowcases. Surely it is not normal to be thinking of an excuse to cancel your toy boy because the entire household has got nits. Why do I keep getting myself into such a mess?”

This is well-trodden territory. Since Fielding was away many other authors have stepped in. If she is about to enter the fray, she had better have something original to say. You feel the weight of that worry as Fielding takes the staples of modern life – remote controls, tweeting, texting, online dating – and strains to make anything of them.

In her early incarnation, Bridget’s tone was light and rooted in reality. There was humour and sharp observation on every page. The first moment I laughed in Mad About the Boy was on page 34, when Bridget is out with her friend Tom in a nightclub.

“Later, though, Tom drunkenly followed me into the Ladies’, leaning against the wall for support as I flapped my hands around the designer tap trying to get it to turn on.

‘Bridget,’ said Tom, as I started groping under the washbasin for pedals.

I looked up from under the sink.’What?’’’

This is the authentic Jones, grappling with an aspect of existence that defeats so many. The joke grows from the situation, from her age and from something that has actually happened. The same thing illuminates her observations about reading glasses and “Braille parking”, a technique used in crowded streets. It fills the tender moments when Fielding describes Bridget’s children’s exasperation with their mother.

But Fielding struggles to find this voice. There is an awful lot of moaning about Mark in sub-Mills and Boon style. “Mark was a gentleman and I trusted him completely and I went out from that safe place in the world.” Alternatively, there is quite a lot of a frolicsome, Fifty Shades of Gray sort of voice, which is equally disconcerting. “He took off his shirt. I gasped. He looked like an advert. He looked like he’d been airbrushed with a six-pack.”

Bridget herself has become equally unreal. She’s now a screenwriter knocking off a modern version of Hedda Gabler called "The Leaves in His Hair". We are expected to believe that Bridget knows enough to know that that is a quotation from the play, yet she has misspelled it as "Hedda Gabbler" and assigned it to Anton Chekhov not Ibsen. This makes her foolish, something she has never been.

Fielding’s touch hasn’t entirely abandoned her. Despite her odd decision to sideline the devilish Daniel, who makes tantalisingly brief and genuinely funny appearances, and introduce a promising new neighbour only to ignore her, she is still superb at the construction of the comic set piece.

A scene in Bridget’s mother’s “not retirement community” where her children disrupt the “Hard-Hats-Offing” ceremony reads like a scene in the inevitable movie; the moment when her film producer falls off a boat while pretending to be in the office has a vivid slapstick quality; the description of Bridget stuck on all fours while trying to get up after sitting for too long at the school picnic has a truthfulness that too much of the book lacks.

But that moment occurs in its last third – at 387 pages, it is not short – when a plot twist that was signalled in its section has finally unfurled. At that moment, Mad About the Boy suddenly changes. It is as if Fielding has stopped self-consciously trying to replicate the Bridget of old and allowed her to grow into the woman she really might have been at 51.

It isn’t quite a return to form, but it means the end of Mad About the Boy isn’t quite as toe-curling as its beginning. Still, as Bridget might say, v. disappointing.

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