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Bridget Jones's
Lonely Hearts Club Fans

By T.R. Reid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 18, 1998

  Style Showcase

    Helen Fielding Helen Fielding, author of "Brigit Jones's Diary," to be published by Viking in July of 1998. (Andrew Crowley/Camerapress)
LONDON—On a good day, Bridget Jones weighs no more than 120 pounds, smokes no more than five cigarettes, imbibes no more than three alcohol units, comes up with one or two clever ideas at the office meeting, and checks her voice mail maybe two or three times to see if her boyfriend has phoned.

On a bad day – of which there are many – the statistics are less satisfying. Still, the obsessive Ms. Jones dutifully records them all in her hilarious but poignant diary: "Saturday 12 August: 129 pounds, alcohol units 3 (v.g.), cigarettes 32 (v.v. bad, particularly since first day of giving up) . . . voice mail calls 22, minutes spent having cross imaginary conversations with Daniel 120, minutes spent imagining Daniel begging me to come back 90."

This thirtysomething Londoner is, in short, the exemplar of a contemporary type: the angst-ridden, ever-dieting, I-wonder-if-this-skirt-is-too-short-for-the-office junior executive who hears her mother nagging and her biological clock ticking but can't seem to find a man who is not already married, or interested merely in casual sex, or both. There's a lot of truth among the laughs here. That's why the charming novel "Bridget Jones's Diary" has turned out to be a publishing sensation in Britain: 50 weeks on the bestseller lists and a million copies sold. That's why "Bridget Jones" and her self-described marital status – "singleton" – have entered the language here as standard parlance among her thirtyish peers of both sexes. And that's why "Bridget Jones's Diary" is likely to make a large literary splash in the United States when Viking Press publishes the book next month.

The U.S. edition has already been named a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club. Bridget's creator, the author Helen Fielding, is set for a busy round-robin of the major U.S. talk shows and is, in fact, turning down all interviews now so as not to dilute the commercial impact of her promotional tour.

Fielding, a former BBC producer and freelance writer, has admitted that many of Bridget's misadventures were based on her own life as a London singleton.

And Ms. Jones is absolutely a product of, by, and for London. When Bridget complains that she had to walk past Whistles and buy her new outfit at Miss Selfridge instead, readers here know precisely the state of her bank balance. When she refers to a female acquaintance as "Sloaney Woney," the singletons of London know instantly that the woman in question is an upper-class snob named Fiona (nickname "Wona," hence "Woney") who buys her clothes in the pricey boutiques of Sloane Square, and that Bridget resents all that.

The gamble, then, for Viking – and for the publishers bringing out the diary in 16 other countries this year – is that there is enough that is universal about Bridget Jones to outweigh the intensely local parts of her story.

It's probably a good bet, at least for U.S. audiences. A society that has made cultural icons out of Ally McBeal and Cathy Guisewite should have no trouble accepting Bridget Jones as a soul sister. There is no doubt that Bridget and her various obsessions are alive and thriving in the mid-priced one-bedroom apartments of Washington, Denver, Seattle and probably every other U.S. city.

There are certainly plenty of Americans who will bond with Bridget when they read of her emotional ups and downs on the weekend (the sadly typical weekend) of Jan. 6-8.

First, we see Bridget's reaction Friday afternoon at the office when a handsome executive at her publishing company sends a computer message asking for her home telephone number. "Yesssss! Yesssss!" Bridget records in her diary. "Daniel Cleaver wants my phone no. Am marvelous. Am irresistible Sex Goddess. Hurrah!"

The next entry, on Sunday Jan. 8, tells what happened next. "Oh God, why am I so unattractive? Hideous, wasted two days glaring psychopathically at the phone and eating things. Why hasn't he rung? Why? What's wrong with me?"

The editors at Viking have decided that moments like that require no translation.

Still, they have made a few changes in Bridget's diary to accommodate American readers.

When Bridget dashes out of the office to "get some fags," the American editors will translate that to "get some cigarettes."

While Bridget measures her weight in "stone" (a unit equaling 14 pounds), the U.S. edition will convert the figure to "pounds." Thus on the banner summer day when she actually actually gets down to the long-sought goal of "8 stone 7," the U.S. edition will simply say "119 pounds."

Perhaps a larger effort at translation will be necessary over the next few months as the London production company called Working Title – the outfit that made the Mr. Bean movies and "Four Weddings and a Funeral" – gears up to turn "Bridget Jones's Diary" into a movie.

Not since the fervor in the '30s over the burning question "Who will play Scarlett O'Hara?" has there been, perhaps, such speculation about the movie casting of a literary character.

The choice of an actress to play Bridget Jones has caught the public fancy in large part because – except for the constant recording of her weight – the diary never gives a clear picture of what Bridget looks like. The book jacket here provides a cloudy over-the-shoulder photo of a young woman who is vaguely attractive. (In the United States, the Viking jacket will make Bridget's face even less discernible.) The Daily Telegraph newspaper, which is serializing the diary, shows Bridget's ever-present cigarette and wine glass, but not her face.

Media guesses here as to the movie Bridget have included Minnie Driver and Gwyneth Paltrow (who has announced that she wants to make movies in London from now on, but is perhaps not believable as a terrified singleton). The most common suggestion is Kate Winslet, who is reported by the London tabloids to be fighting a daily weight battle of her own. The author's agent here suggests that the role might be given to an unknown, to preserve the air of mystery about what Bridget looks like.

That air of mystery is probably another factor in Bridget Jones's appeal. Every reader, after all, gets to create his own picture of the embattled singleton heroine. And soon, American readers will be doing so as well.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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