When “Bridget Jones’s Diary” became a publishing sensation in the late 1990s, times were different for women. “The End of Men” had not yet been announced. Working ladies weren’t being encouraged to “Lean In.” Female-centric blogs such as Jezebel and Feministing didn’t exist. Imagine if social media had started to blossom before our Bridge was born. Instead of recording her romantic exploits and caloric intake in journal form, she might have posted all of that information online, requiring author Helen Fielding to write a novel entitled “Bridget Jones’s Tumblr.”
Now, almost 20 years after that famous diary was first released in Britain and turned into a cross-continental bestseller, here comes Bridget Jones, stumbling into the allegedly more gender-equal world of 2013 just as fixated on losing weight and attracting men as she was back in the era of “Friends.” And she’s still just as capable of causing a media stir, too. “Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy” has prompted loads of pre-publication publicity, including an announcement Wednesday that it’s the “Today” show’s new book club pick.
“Mad About the Boy” is the third novel to focus on the perpetually unglued British everywoman, and the first to be published after a 14-year absence. Since the second installment, “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason,” circumstances have changed for the tart-tongued hater of “smug marrieds.” She’s now 51, the mother of two young children and — spoiler alert — a widow. Mark Darcy, the sensible yet sexy love interest inspired by Colin Firth’s role in the BBC’s “Pride and Prejudice,” and actually played by Firth in the rom-coms based on the “Bridget” books, has been dead for nearly four years when “Mad About the Boy” begins. Bridget is bereaved and, as always, frazzled. Only now she’s frazzled by semi-new things, like attempting to turn a social media flirtation with a man 20 years her junior into a genuine romance. (Bridget’s fresh-faced paramour goes by Roxster, which is his Twitter handle. His actual name, Roxby McDuff, is, remarkably, even more absurd.)
Yes, Bridget Jones is on Twitter, which means she now tracks her followers with the same obsessive insecurity she devotes to her weight and the number of alcohol units she’s consumed. “Twitter followers 1,” she notes. “Am practically viral.”
While parenthood and profound loss may have forced Bridget to grow up in some ways, she hasn’t grown up much. And that’s one of this novel’s key problems. Readers may expect a middle-aged woman who has dealt with such loss to have lowered her narcissism levels a tad. Not Bridget Jones . . . or, pardon me, @JonesyBJ.
While Fielding occasionally attempts to demonstrate the character’s more generous side — at one point, she writes a letter to the late Mark, apologizing for “being upset about anything which isn’t about not still having you” — too often she casts the single mom/budding screenwriter as a self-involved flake. Is Bridget’s experience supposed to be relatable, as it was in “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” a book that critiqued society’s expectations of women as much as it fell prey to female stereotypes? Or is her ability to have sleepovers with a hot guy while relying on a nanny to scoot the kids off to school and day care supposed to serve as a form of chick-lit escapism for today’s working moms? It’s never clear.
Maybe the problem is less about Bridget’s stunted development and more about the lack of originality in the novel’s approach. After all, we consume plenty of books and movies about men stuck in a state of perpetual immaturity. Women should be allowed to “lean in” to the same behavior, am I right, Sheryl Sandberg?
It’s more frustrating that Fielding, who still demonstrates an occasional capacity to lob wryly funny zingers at her readers, has taken the easy way out in terms of plot. Instead of placing Bridget in an entirely new situation that might have afforded her added depth, the author has turned her into a singleton again. Despite the addition of children, this seems like a Bridget Jones story we’ve already read, two times before, and that, for all its references to tweeting and texting, seems out of touch with the current moment.
If only Fielding had set this novel in the era prior to 2008, when Mark Darcy was alive and the two were trying to start a family together. Those were the years when, presumably, Mrs. Darcy was trying to maintain her singleton cred while simultaneously turning into a smug married. That’s the kind of struggle that could have made Bridget Jones truly relatable again, especially to the now-settled readers who fell in love with her back when they, too, were frenetic 30-somethings. Instead, Helen Fielding has merely beamed in a familiar heroine from the late ’90s. As a result, we have a much-hyped novel that, sadly, is more retro than relevant.
Chaney is a film critic and pop culture writer whose work appears regularly in The Post, New York Magazine’s Vulture, the Dissolve and other outlets.
Mad About the Boy
By Helen Fielding
Knopf. 390 pp. $26.95