Friday, September 09, 2005

Summer Reading Review: Ten Big Ones and The Undomestic Goddess

Title: Ten Big Ones
Author: Janet Evanovich
Publisher: St. Martin's Paperbacks (2004)

Title: The Undomestic Goddess
Author: Sophie Kinsella
Publisher: The Dial Press (2005)

I know that someday I will stand before the throne of the Lord and give an accounting of my life. I know that, in this world, my days should be spent in diligence, working for His kingdom, redeeming the time for the days are evil. I know that when Jesus walked the earth He did not, at least as far as the Gospel accounts reveal, spend any time on the beach of the Salt Sea, reading novels and drinking margaritas.

I know all these things, and yet I cannot resist a funny, frothy, silly novel now and then (or an occasional margarita -- but that's another post for another time). Especially dear to me are the novels of Janet Evanovich (The Stephanie Plum mysteries) and Sophie Kinsella (the Shopaholic books and other funny chick-lit). They are very much like cotton candy in book form - airy nothingness that give momentary satisfaction, but quickly fade from memory. It takes only a few hours to read them through, and then it's back to diligent work for the kingdom of heaven (or, at least, slightly more serious reading fare).

So, I'll review them both together, since neither offers the weight alone to merit a solitary review. Of these two, I enjoyed The Undomestic Goddess a little more. Here is why: Janet Evanovich has written about the character Stephanie Plum, comically inept bounty hunter and Trenton, NJ native, in more than ten volumes of numerically-titled pulp mystery (Eleven on Top is currently in trade cloth, and I only read the Stephanie Plum series in mass market format). This character is very appealing, but I think that the premise is starting to wear thin. It's difficult to watch a character in book after book not growing or changing. I'm beginning to get frustrated with her and her inability to commit in a relationship or improve in her profession or hold onto a particular vehicle for more than a week. I did not do much more than crack a smile or two when reading this latest paperback offering. I need a little more from my escape-lit than that.

The Undomestic Goddess, on the other hand, was so delightfully preposterous and the heroine so uniquely endearing (and yet, for Kinsella fans, reassuringly familiar), that I laughed out loud several times in the reading. Sophie Kinsella is one of the most gifted humorists of modern novels. I fell in love with Becky Bloomwood -- self-professed shopaholic -- in Kinsella's first novel, Confessions of a Shopaholic, and have remained enchanted with every subsequent book. What I especially like is the lightness of her touch. Too many women authors take themselves and their characters too seriously -- they have to inject dark themes or miserable secrets even into essentially comic novels. I'm thinking of authors such as Marian Keyes and Lorna Landvik. Kinsella carries her plots and characters along on the wings of levity and benevolence. Even the "villains" never get the upper hand, and the reader never doubts that the end will bring smiles and not tears.

In Ten Big Ones, Stephanie Plum gets unwittingly wound up in crime and depravity by being, as she so often is, in the wrong place at the worst possible time. After witnessing a robbery and inadvertantly seeing the perpetrator without his mask, she learns that she has become an execution target for a local New Jersey gang. In the meantime, she quarrels with her cop boyfriend, Joe Morelli, finds out more about the mysterious über-bounty hunter Ranger, deals with her crazy Trenton family, including Grandma Mazur (who, some fans will be disappointed to learn, does not meet her end and vanish from the series) and her whiny sister, Valerie, puts up with her ineffective side-kick, Lula, and feeds inappropriate food to her pet hamster, Rex. She also loses a car or two in the course of the novel, as happens in every Stephanie Plum book. Rest assured, Stephanie comes out all right in the end and Joe Morelli still loves her (for reasons unfathomable to me) though she refuses to settle down and get married. Same old, same old Stephanie. Janet Evanovich needs to breathe some new life into this series by allowing Stephanie to grow as a character.

The Undomestic Goddess introduces a new character to the Kinsella roster: Samantha Sweeting -- super-stressed, Type-A, London power attorney whose life goal is a partnership in the prestigious firm, Carter Spink. Her hopes for that partnership come crashing down as she discovers a mistake she made that spells doom for her career. In a daze, a "total meltdown," Samantha gets on a train to "anywhere" and ends up in Gloucestershire. Through a series of mistaken notions and mishaps that could only flow plausibly from Kinsella's pen, Samantha ends up as the housekeeper (cook, laundress, maid-of-all-work) at the country estate of Trish and Eddie Geiger. The funny thing is, this MENSA-qualified big-city lawyer has no idea how to cook, do laundry, or clean anything -- she fakes it with aplomb for the first day, hoping to escape back to London when the furor over her error dies down. It's worse than she had anticipated, though, so she deems it best to stay in the country. No fear -- with the help of the sexy, horitculturalist groundskeeper and his sympathetic mum, Samantha learns all that she needs to pass herself off as a "domestic goddess." In the course of "scrubbing the loos" and baking cakes from scratch, she learns a bit about community, family, herself, and the pleasure of having weekends off. The plot takes some interesting twists and turns, but all ends well, with Samantha Sweeting de-stressed, in love, and, for the first time, truly happy.

I think that the reason that these fluffy concoctions appeal to me so greatly is the same reason I love "screwball comedies" from 1930's filmdom: they are light-hearted and reassuring in a world too often black with sin and sorrow. I love to laugh, and it's nice to laugh without a hint of mean-spiritedness. These goofy heroines of Evanovich's and Kinsella's evoke the silly antics of Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, and Irene Dunne from seventy years ago. If you need a vacation from reality once in a while, pick up either of these (any Sophie Kinsella, really) and have a chuckle.

My work in this world has been built, I believe, of unequal parts of gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, and straw -- with far too much destined to burn in the fire, but with hopefully some left to stand the test and endure forever. Because my foundation is on Christ, my hope in Him transcends my failing always to be a serious sort of person. He will, I trust, hold harmless my diversion by trivialities that helps a little to mitigate the evil of this fallen world. Heaven will be a place full of laughter, don't you think? Laughter without guilt, pain or smallness of mind. Laughter with the Creator of the universe.

Happy thought indeed!

Your passion is consuming, Your holiness is fire, Your spirit is a hunter that no runner can tire. Your light shines through the darkness to the corners of the earth -- Your laughter is the music of the universe. -- Carolyn Arends, "Not a Tame Lion," from the album Under the Gaze (2004)

Overall Grade: Ten Big Ones - B-; The Undomestic Goddess - B+
Readability: Ten Big Ones - B; The Undomestic Goddess - A-
Subject Interest: Ten Big Ones - B-; The Undomestic Goddess - B+
Illustrations: Ten Big Ones - N/A; The Undomestic Goddess (cover) - B+
Recommended? Ten Big Ones - Read the first few in the series before this one -- they are fresher and more interesting. The Undomestic Goddess - Yes, I would recommend this as an excellent example of escapist literature. You'll probably get some smiles, maybe some chuckles, and, perhaps, a guffaw or two.
Next Up: A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving


CrazyJo said...

My husband doesn't understand my need for escapist reading. I compare it to his need to watch certains movies over and over. I've also struggled with knowing it's not really a good use of my time, and also that the morals of the books are usually not the same as my morals. I haven't really found any good escapist Christain books, as they all seem to need to preach at me. Sigh.

CrazyJo said...

I recently read one of Sophie's books. It was very enjoyable fluff! I also really enjoy Jennifer Crusie for a good laugh.

Arielle said...

My escape-lit is almost always children's fiction. Sid Fleischmann's books make me laugh out loud. C.S. Lewis, E. Nesbit, Margery Sharp, George Selden, L.M. Montgomery, Marguerite Henry, Robin McKinley, and Patricia C. Wrede (her books also make me laugh out loud) are some of my favorites, just to name a few. I find children's fiction refreshing and generally light-hearted.

Justine said...

Hey, Crazy Jo!

I saw on your profile that The Blue Castle was one of your favorite books -- how cool is that? It's one on mine to! One of the less-known LMM, but a delightful tale.

I've wanted to write a funny, Christian-friendly (if not necessarily themed) novel for a while, for the same reason as your concerns (especially all of the jumping into the sack without benefit of marriage that even Sophie Kinsella feels it necessary to include). I fear that I'm just not funny/creative enough. Maybe we'll leave that to Flicka, since she is not only creative, but I suspect, funny too.

Arielle - I agree about a lot of children's lit. Have you ever read the Great Brain series by John D. Fitzgerald? Those have always made me laugh. And Caddie Woodlawn too - a great supplement to Laura Ingalls Wilder!

Ain't books just great?