Tuesday 22 October 2019

Christmas Shopaholic: Becky attempts to navigate new world of sustainability in Sophie Kinsella's ninth instalment

Christmas Shopaholic, Sophie Kinsella, Bantam Press, hardback, 384 pages, €13.99

Ninth in series: Sophie Kinsella
Ninth in series: Sophie Kinsella
Christmas Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella

Meadhbh McGrath

When The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic was first published, Becky Bloomwood was arriving into a very different time. It was 2000, right in the middle of the boom years, of Sex and the City and Manolos and It bags, when fashionistas drove the economy to soaring heights and material excess raised gleeful squeals rather than eyebrows.

In the first instalment of Sophie Kinsella's wildly popular series, all of those spending sprees had caught up with Becky, the titular shopaholic. Encouraged by banks to take out more and more credit - and convinced that that one perfect purchase would utterly transform her life - she fell into serious debt.

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It was definitely not a funny topic, but Kinsella made an outrageously funny book out of it. And she continued to do so, boosted by a film adaptation right in the middle of the recession, up to the eighth and most recent title, Shopaholic to the Rescue, published in 2015. Now, Becky's back, in an eagerly anticipated festive treat that fans are certain to adore. Our heroine has moved out of the city to a rural village with Luke and their daughter Minnie, and she's working in the gift shop of her best friend and former flatmate Suze's stately home, Letherby Hall. Becky's work revolves around selling "hygge" and scented candles rather than designer clothes, a development that may come as a bit of a let-down to those who preferred her glitzy career as a personal shopper.

At a family dinner, Becky discovers her parents are abandoning Oxshott for an "adventure" in Shoreditch, an achingly cool neighbourhood in east London, which means Becky will have to host Christmas this year.

As if the growing list of festive demands wasn't enough, she starts to doubt the life she has made for herself when her college boyfriend, now a gorgeous rock singer, makes a sudden reappearance.

Unfortunately, Becky's desperate bid to impress her old flame with "edgy" clothing and make-up border on the pathetic, more like the antics of an insecure teenager than a forty-something woman. Becky is one of the most enduringly popular characters in contemporary women's fiction, but this storyline leaves you wishing she would grow up a bit.

Thankfully, the ex soon fades into the background, as Kinsella becomes preoccupied with detailing Becky's marathon of Christmas planning. Luke is largely a supporting player in all of this, but there are a handful of genuinely romantic moments between the fan-favourite couple that will warm hearts, just as the gloriously festive set pieces are guaranteed to put readers in the Christmas spirit, from a boozy visit to a craft fair to Minnie's uproarious school nativity play.

And through it all, of course, there's the shopping, which Becky now carries out unencumbered by fears of debt. Her scavenger hunt around Oxford Street to track down the ideal money-can't-buy present for Luke offers an amusing diversion, but otherwise, Becky does the bulk of her shopping online, like everyone else which, despite Kinsella's best efforts, doesn't make for the most arresting read.

Nearly 20 years since the Shopaholic series began, the consumer landscape has vastly changed. Becky returns at a time when shoppers are increasingly concerned about sustainability and eliminating waste (concerns embodied here by Becky's uncompromising and rather joyless half-sister, Jess).

Kinsella chronicles Becky's attempts to navigate sustainable shopping - such as her dresser packed full of bags for life, or her hapless outing to the zero-waste grocery shop - and although these accounts are typically hilarious, once readers stop laughing, they may find such gags ring tasteless in a climate crisis.

Jess's severity, meanwhile, and her insistence on "sustainable, non-consumerist, locally-sourced presents that reflect the true principles of fellowship rather than the hollow pleasures of shopping" are often played for laughs, and Becky never really questions the wider impact of her dizzying overconsumption.

Kinsella doesn't judge Becky, and while she brings the same laugh-out-loud humour as always, the joke is starting to wear thin. It may be unfestive to say so, but perhaps it's time for Becky Brandon (née Bloomwood) to finally reckon with the consequences of all that shopping.

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