Tuesday 27 June 2017

A delicious soufflé of a novel tackling online pressure

Fiction: My Not So Perfect Life, Sophie Kinsella, Bantam, hdbk, 400 pages, €23.49

Frequently hilarious: Author Sophie Kinsella. Photo: John Swannell
Frequently hilarious: Author Sophie Kinsella. Photo: John Swannell
My Not So Perfect Life by Sophie Kinsella

Meadhbh McGrath

Sophie Kinsella is best known for her Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic books, which followed the adventures of hapless heroine Becky Bloomwood over the course of seven novels. It was the series that shot her to fame (and over 36 million book sales), but it ran out of steam, and many of her standalone works are much stronger, the most recent one being a prime example.

My Not So Perfect Life tells the story of Katie Brenner, a 26-year-old from Somerset attempting to lead a glamorous life in London. While at work at a trendy branding agency, she goes by 'Kat' and brags about the fabulous restaurants she eats at - with opinions directly lifted from reviews in the Guardian.

Katie uses Instagram to project a glossy, enviable lifestyle, when in reality she can barely cobble the rent together and ends up getting sacked by her cruel, perfect boss Demeter, a woman self-styled on the ultimate aspirational lifestyle guru, Gwyneth Paltrow. Bereft, Katie returns to her family farm to help start up a glamping business, keeping her dad and stepmother in the dark about her troubles.

Kinsella has a wonderful gift for comedy, and My Not So Perfect Life is a delicious soufflé of a novel - part love story, part workplace drama - with a fizzy, funny heroine and an engaging romantic subplot.

Kinsella is the queen of the romcom novel, and has long been pejoratively branded a "chick-lit" writer, despite her Shopaholic series being informed by her former life as a financial journalist. Her writing is very sharp and frequently hilarious, and if she were a man, I imagine her work would be lauded as witty social satire.

The angle for her latest story is the fickle world of social media, and the use of Instagram as a source of validation. It's an issue modern artists, particularly writers and filmmakers, have continuously struggled with - how to make art reflecting the fact that we spend more time communicating virtually than in real life. In attempting to craft an allegory for the thrills and spills of technology, Kinsella occasionally falters (with lines like "I'll take some photos and social-media them"), but the story is far stronger and more enjoyable outside of the virtual world.

Katie's narration is fresh, lively and consistently entertaining - her agile and self-deprecating sense of humour makes her socially awkward encounters with a boss who can't remember her name or a rowdy passenger on her hellish commute relatable and believable. Kinsella establishes a light, easy chemistry between Katie and her love interest, but it's clear that's not the only important relationship in the novel, as she fleshes out all the secondary character, from Katie's boss to her stepmum, with ease. Loads of fun.

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