Outstanding example of witty, comedic chick lit
Reading Level: Adult Romance
Release Date: July 1, 2004
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Pages: 352 pages
Reviewed By: Kate McMurry
Olivia “Livvy” Martin is a 21-year-old college student who is the privileged offspring of a wealthy father. She has never had to hold down a job, and she is slowly meandering toward a BA degree. She has never been kissed because she has never been willing to date, due to a deep cynicism about not just men, but the whole human race–a distrust, it is made obvious early on in the book, that is rooted in her upbringing by her emotionally and ethically dysfunctional parents. The hallmarks of Livvy’s self-identity are a huge chip on her shoulder, and an overriding alienation that is clearly connected to that shoulder chip as well as to her perpetual unwillingness to ever make herself vulnerable to anyone. This “rebel without a cause” attitude is outwardly manifested as a constant opposition to any form of authority, not in huge, destructive ways, such as drug or alcohol abuse or committing petty crime, but instead by an inability to talk to other people in any other way than via witty, sarcastic remarks. She is obviously as brilliant as her father, because even though she rarely shows up for class, she gets A’s whenever she makes the least effort. And over time in the novel, it becomes clear that she is almost as attractive as her gorgeous mother, who is a classic “dumb, beautiful blonde.”
Livvy’s mother is a former top model, currently unemployed for many years, and full-time drinker who feels entitled to leech onto her daughter emotionally and her ex-husband financially–in other words, Livvy and her father both have maintained a codependent relationship with her mother, and both are driven mad by her mother’s oblivious ignorance and blithe, unshakeable conviction that she is a sacrificial mother, while endlessly treating Livvy with selfish disregard.
Livvy’s father is a narcissist, too, but of a different order. He is an arrogant, patronizing jerk who is a highly successful shark of an attorney. His second wife is a trust-fund baby from an elite family, and she is yet another of the significant narcissists populating Livvy’s world. The stepmother is as beautiful as Livvy’s mother, though much younger and not remotely as dim-witted.
To round out Livvy’s family party, which we are exposed to as a group for the first time near the start of this book at the Thanksgiving celebration from hell at her father’s mansion, there is Livvy’s half-sister Celia, a three-almost-four-year-old, spoiled brat whom Livvy barely knows.
Since leaving home to go to college, as much as possible Livvy has attempted to ignore her family, and mostly succeeds, until the fateful day when her father and stepmother die in a fiery car crash, and she discovers to her horror that her father named her in his will as Celia’s guardian.
This novel was published in 2003 and is Ms. LaZebnik’s first book. If you are looking for romantic comedy, please be aware that though she has written several young adult (YA) romantic comedies, this book is not romantic comedy. It is, instead, “chick lit,” that is, a subgenre within women’s fiction that focuses primarily on a main female character’s relationships with other women (whether friends or relatives), with children, and/or on her “dating disasters.” In the early days of chick lit in the 90’s, most were comedy-of-error stories in the vein of Bridget Jones’s Diary, but this particular book is more light drama than comedy, or what one might call a “dramedy.” Essentially all the humor in this book comes in the form of repartee between Livvy and three different male romantic interests who are all as intelligent as she is. As a slight spoiler–not really, though, because this is a common convention in most chick lit, and especially a pattern for the chick lit of this author–there is a happily-ever-after (HEA) romance subplot rounding out the novel. However, it is very much a minor part of the book as a whole, unlike an actual romance novel where the romance takes center stage.
I’ve recently had a kind of Clare LaZebnik reading festival, consuming four others of her chick lit novels in a row, including:
Knitting Under the Influence (2006)
The Smart One and the Pretty One (2008)
If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home Now (2010)
Families and Other Nonreturnable Gifts (2011)
These are the titles of her four YA romantic comedies, all of whom I’ve enjoyed:
Epic Fail (2011)
The Trouble with Flirting (2013)
The Last Best Kiss (2014)
Wrong About the Guy (2015)
A convention of chick lit, much like the recent subgenre of romance fiction, the “New Adult” (NA) novel, is that the protagonist is a 20-something struggling with adjusting to living a responsible, adult life. NA, however, focuses always on a main romance plot, and like most regular romance novels, is most often written in the point of view (POV) of both the male and female romantic protagonists. In contrast, chick lit is almost always written in first person POV, which is the case with this book. It is one of two aspects of the chick lit genre that mark it as very similar to YA fiction. The second one is a theme of “coming of age.” The protagonist starts out in an emotionally immature, egocentric (often to the point of narcissistic) state and, over the course of the story, evolves through the conflict she faces in the story to a much greater maturity.
In Ms. LaZebnik’s chick lit books, like most chick lit, the heroine is often self-centered at the beginning of the book to the point of being obnoxious, which is definitely the case in this book with Livvy. But she is saved from being outright unlikeable by virtue of the fact that her frequent, witty zingers are often laugh-out-loud funny. In addition, the author subtly makes us aware, without hitting us over the head with it in a preachy way, that Livvy has come by her seeming coldness and cynicism via her disillusioning experiences of human nature in her own family. In short, in order to truly enjoy reading chick lit, you have to be willing to put up with the heroine’s ditzy growing pains. For me, that is only bearable if the author is extraordinarily good at what she does. In the case of Ms. LaZebnik, she certainly is that good. In fact, she is outstanding. Another means she uses in this book to make Livvy sympathetic is a time-honored plotting device that, in all forms of women’s fiction at least, never gets old–her caring attitude toward a vulnerable child.
In that regard, the core of this novel, above all, is Livvy’s evolving relationship with her little sister, Celia. For the most part it is really well done. I do have one, big quibble, though, with the characterization of Celia: We are told she is three years old, not quite four. If you have ever spent time around children that age, even intellectually gifted ones, they tend to employ very simple sentences and have a limited vocabulary. Celia speaks, at least in my experience as a teacher and mother of two intellectually and verbally gifted children, like a very gifted child of about seven, at the youngest. For her to talk as well as she does, in my humble opinion, there should have been some mention in the book somewhere that the child has been noted by, at the very least, her preschool teachers as astoundingly verbally precocious. It would also not have taken more than a sentence to link this to the genetic factor that her father is so very intelligent, and Livvy herself is, as demonstrated by her amazing degree of wittiness, extremely verbally gifted.
I am personally not a big fan of chick lit and, over the past 20 years or so since the genre began, I have read less than a dozen chick lit novels because of that. For the most part I find them irritating because the heroines are so often portrayed as clueless and utterly superficial. The only reason I read this book and Ms. LaZebnik’s other four chick lit novels is because I loved her YA romantic comedies, and I find her to be an exceptionally talented author. She is so good, in fact, that even when I have become irritated with her chick lit heroines, such as Livvy in this book, I could not put these books down. Or, as the saying goes, I found this book and her other chick lit novels to be “compulsively readable.” I also admit freely that part of my instinctive prejudice is that I much prefer romance novels with a focus in the main plot of the book on romance, rather than women’s fiction in general, including chick lit, where the main focus is on non-romance relationships, in particular caretaking relationships of one sort or another. There is also an innately oppositional perspective within chick lit, especially YA chicklit, to the outlook that determines the approach to story in romance. In chicklit, the message is essentially this: you should cynically distrust heterosexual, romantic relationships because decent, caring men are almost impossible to find. Instead, work on yourself, your own self-sufficiency and maturity, and stick most of the time to your female relationships if you want loyalty and stability (even if some of your female relationships include female relatives who are, much of the time, aggravatingly self-centered and often downright idiotic). The framework for romance is very different, stating: love relationships with a romantic partner, the ideal partner, can elevate both you and your partner and bring out the best in each of you. Admittedly, there is very often an HEA romance subplot in chicklit, but the vast majority of the book informs us that dating and courtship stinks because it involves kissing endless frogs with nary a prince in sight. Only when, at the very end of the chick lit novel, the heroine has become self-sufficient and mature enough to stop seeking fulfillment in a man is she rewarded with the ideal, mature man who matches her own, hard-earned maturity. This is very much the pattern that Ms. LaZebnik follows in her chick lit.
Speaking of an ideal man for the chick lit heroine, I must say that I adored the ultimate-HEA hero, in all his appearances, throughout this book. And I loathed, as we as readers were meant to, the “dating disaster” romantic interest every time he showed up.
I rate this book, for what it is, as chick lit, in the following manner:
Coming-of-Age Plot: 5
Dating Disasters Plot: 4
Romance Subplot: 5