Chicken Soup for the Chick
Friday, March 9, 2007
ASK AGAIN LATER
By Jill A. Davis
Ecco. 246 pp. $23.95
Emily Rhode is 30. She's attractive and lives in happenin' New York. Her father left when she was 5 years old, she's hardly seen him for 25 years, but he'll soon turn up in this story. Her mother is needy, manipulative, lonely, shallow and narcissistic. Her sister, Marjorie, is shallow and narcissistic, married, expecting a baby and so willfully incompetent that she hires someone to buy all her clothes. Emily thinks she may be in love with Sam, but he only turns up in a few scenes. There's also Will, a man at work who asks her out; Perry, a gay friend; and her shrink, who asks her penetrating questions as she tries to find herself. Oddly, she doesn't have a girlfriend. And only Emily is fleshed out in any way here. This is a form of classic chick lit.
Those are the characters; here is the back story: Since her attorney-father has been so neglectful and conspicuously absent, Emily goes to law school and gets a job at a prestigious law firm, where she works like a galley slave. Her sister, remember, has taken the other path and presumably spends life on a chaise-longue eating bonbons. Then Emily's mother gets breast cancer and announces she's dying. She tells this to everybody she's ever known.
Emily quits the job where she's on track to be partner. She moves in with her mother to take care of her and help her through this crisis. Unexpectedly, her dad drops by to check on his ex-wife after he hears the alarming news, and offers Emily a job at his own firm -- as a receptionist. The inquiring reader might want to know why he doesn't hire her on as a regular attorney or why the eternally lolling Marjorie doesn't lend a hand taking care of her mother, but the author may well be setting up a fictional triad of the possibilities for women: Get a traditionally male job and work until you're dizzy, stay home and reproduce the species, or work at a low-pay, dead-end job until you get old and die. It really doesn't matter, because -- again -- this is chick lit.
"Ask Again Later" is by Jill A. Davis, who used to write for David Letterman and published a bestseller called "Girls' Poker Night" in 2002. Reading her new novel, I believe I can say I've unlocked the secret of this astoundingly popular genre (and the correlative secret of why the highly hyped "Lad Lit" lasted about as long as a raw oyster under a sunlamp). If you were to line up Marjorie, the sister; Wendy, the office manager; Perry, the gay guy; Will, the bad date; Sam, the love of her life; and Emily's mom and dad, you couldn't tell them apart because they have no distinguishing features. They all talk alike and -- aside from that elusive father -- have dispositions that range from bad to disagreeable. They don't appear to dress in any particular way, except for Emily's mom, who irritatingly dolls up in silk pajamas and matching slippers after her operation or, before she goes into the hospital but after she's made her death announcement, sports "jeans, a blue cashmere sweater, and matching driving moccasins. Her hair is up. She's wearing lapis teardrop earrings and a lapis beaded necklace. Her nails are freshly painted with a shade of red called I'm-Not-A-Waitress." So, yes, you could recognize her mom.
Think about chicks for a minute. They are the nameless girls who wait for boys to finish their interminable rehearsals in awful garage bands. They are the wives who accompany their husbands to business dinners and the next day someone ducks into the husband's cubicle and asks, "How's the missus?"
They are the young honeys who get whistled at on the street and get mad about it, and then the workers stop whistling and they get sad about it. Chicks will grow up to be old ladies who send supermarket greeting cards and newspaper clippings that aren't relevant to anything. Chicks never get to have it their own way. Go to a dinner party, even now, and see who does the talking. Every woman's magazine or self-help book still tells a young girl to learn to be a good listener. The reason for this is that, unless she exerts herself mightily, she may easily go through her whole life and never get a word in edgewise.
But not in chick lit! Because these stories belong to the chick. Everyone else in the cast of characters exists only to glorify and valorize the chick. Here, everyone who isn't Emily has the moral compass of a beanbag. Sam, the supposed love of her life, is so sensitive that, hearing about her mother's cancer, he says, "Cancer? Oh, Emily, I'm so sorry. How is she coping?" And a page and a half later: "We're almost finished with this project. Let's go skiing. Maybe Vermont or Lake Placid?" Her father, after he's hired Emily to work at his firm, suggests, regarding her mother's cancer: "Have you considered turning this hiatus into something really special? . . . You could stay in some wonderful old hotels. The lake region of Italy is fabulous." Marjorie totally brushes off the cancer thing (and another very tough event). Even her mother, as soon as she recovers from her surgery, thoughtlessly sends her daughter packing. Emily is used, abandoned, manipulated, misunderstood and, above all, never recognized. She says it all on the first page here: "I am Emily. Emily Rhode. When I was in second grade, I experimented with changing my identity by misspelling my last name. . . . Almost no one ever noticed the way my name was spelled." Being a chick means you have a shelf life from about 13 to 30. Then it's anonymity forever.
"Ask Again Later" is about a first-rate person (at least in her own eyes) learning to live in a world that, no matter what she does, accords her no importance, no value, but at least she gets her say.
So-called "Lad Lit" never got off the ground because, to paraphrase the musical group, males go from boys to men. They write coming-of-age-books, tales of how they got to be so wonderful. Chick lit seems light but takes a more jaundiced view, where the girl-in-question is surrounded by a set of second or third choices, but at least the girl is the star, and only girl friends are granted emotional parity. (That's probably why there isn't one here.) These books are greedily bought and ravenously read by "chicks," who, contrary to the thinking of condescending, derisive bigwigs at various publishing houses (the ones who coined the term "chick lit" in the first place), are actual human beings who live their lives as authentically as anybody else: who can think, read and write, and muster up enough money to purchase books that reflect existence as they see it.