For those of us haunted by the memory of required reading lists, summer vacation is blissfully synonymous with lighter literary fare, emphasis on the "lighter" rather than the "literary." And if you're a fiction fan who can bear yet another seduction scene set in a trendy champagne lounge, or yet another lothario clad in Gucci loafers, the chick lit tables in chain bookstores are groaning under the weight of possibilities. This summer's crop of contenders appears remarkably similar to last summer's, and to that of the summer before, and to every summer since publishing executives dreamed up this lucrative category of popcorn novels by and for women. It goes without saying that many serious, ambitious writers cover similar terrain with depth and sensitivity, but the following picks set out to entertain rather than challenge. So if your beach bag has room, consider one of these takes on urban angst among the well-dressed set.
Down on the Farm
An updated take on the battle between the sexes, Adrienne Brodeur's novel Man Camp (Random House, $21.95) is the story of Lucy and Martha, two dissatisfied New Yorkers in their thirties who dream up a kind of masculinity boot-camp for the well-groomed but ill-trained metrosexuals in their lives. The concept is appealing, what with all the men taking up good seats in nail salons these days, and Brodeur has a perfect bead on that certain kind of well-educated, articulate city boy who can't assemble a cardboard box to save own life. Her grasp of the problem is funny and at times poignant, as when Martha charts the failures of her previous romances: Elliot "admitted to loving Martha only once in their two-year relationship and it felt like an admission, as if loving her was a character flaw he could fight by the sheer strength of his will. The boyfriend before Elliot had the opposite problem: he'd rendered the word meaningless through overuse, making his love of her indistinguishable from his love of, say, Milk Duds. He loved his favorite sneakers, The Daily Show, steak with grilled onions, dirt bike riding, Martha, and sisal rugs."
Brodeur's grasp of the solution is a bit more broad, and Man Camp gets bogged down by cliches of life on the farm, complete with barn dances, pancake breakfasts and a paragon of strapping Southern manliness who actually says such things as "Now, what's got your feathers in a ruffle?" There's a bit of a wink to the use of "Camp" in the book's title, and Brodeur is definitely more in her element on city pavement than on dirt roads. But the novel should be effective motivation for anyone in your life who hasn't learned to change a tire.
By the Numbers
One has to admire the ruthlessness with which Londoner Alexandra Gray has stripped her debut novel, Ten Men (Atlantic Monthly, $22), down to the most essential chick-lit ingredient: the ill-fated romance. No frustrated-career-girl complaints clutter up this tight little book, nor are readers subjected to kernels of hard-won moralizing wisdom at the novel's end. Instead, we follow Gray's protagonist through her successive relationships (guess how many), and watch as she extricates herself from heartbreak, disappointment and, perhaps worst of all, apathy.
Gray is a wry observer of love and of men, and in places this book is astutely satisfying. After spending a long weekend at the country home of a slippery older lover, the main character describes her journey back to London in her beat-up car as "an exercise in hope. Hope he'd invite me back for supper soon. Hope the van would make it. No girl needs a van that's falling apart, and a man who refuses to in the way that love requires." Her best insights have to do with the subtleties of class: When it comes to long-term matches, the men in her rarefied universe aren't social risk-takers, which feels both brutal and true.
What feels less true, and what ultimately undoes the novel, is the Tatler-style succession of lords, billionaires and famous Hollywood types who entertain Gray's heroine. A glamorous affair is one thing; this many glamorous affairs strain credulity and worse, start to make the book read like a day in the life of your average supermodel. Ideally, in her next effort Gray will exchange some of the metallic glitter of platinum credit cards for her more fertile turf, which is real love between real people.
Revenge of the Fired Assistant
Switching stages from the Ritz in Paris to the Four Seasons in L.A., we encounter The Twins of Tribeca (Miramax, $23.95), Rachel Pine's tell-all about her stint as a publicity assistant at Miramax Films. In this novel, the company goes by the name "Glorious Pictures," and the illustrious Weinstein brothers are thinly disguised as Phil and Tony Waxman: hard-driving, hard-eating bosses from hell.
The joy of reading Pine's book, of course, is decoding her gossip about the movie industry: When the star of the "The Foreign Pilot," Sean Raines (who insists his first name be pronounced Sheen), demands a private jet for his flight to the Oscars, he comes across as the classic high-maintenance celebrity. Anyone who has even been an underappreciated assistant will relish this novel as a revenge fantasy. Pine lives it to the max, serving up mortifying details of workplace inanity that her former colleagues are no doubt denying to anyone who will listen. Are the powers that be at Miramax really too cheap to leave soap in the restrooms, unless a star happens to be dropping by the office, in which case it's time to break out the verbena-scented L'Occitane?
That said, a little voyeurism goes a long way. Tilting the scales at almost 400 pages, Pine's novel grows wearisome and flat before the halfway mark, and as her artless prose plods along, cataloging her heroine Karen's every last grievance and humiliation down to her unfair allotment of vacation days, it's hard not to wish the book had been edited more aggressively. At the very end of the novel, when Karen realizes that an unauthorized biography of the Waxman twins might not make the most riveting book, she tells her friend, "They fight a lot, and they scream and they curse and they're miserable to work for. . . . But I don't know what else there is, really. Their movies are much more interesting than either of them, in my opinion." The irony of this observation may escape Pine, but it's not likely to escape her weary readers.
In the beleaguered employee sweepstakes, Pine's assistants don't hold a candle to Samantha Sweeting, heroine of Sophie Kinsella's latest novel, The Undomestic Goddess (Dial, $23). On the day of her promotion to partner of one of London's most prestigious law firms, young Miss Sweeting is discovered to have been guilty of a massive oversight in a case for a crucial client. In a daze, she flees the wreckage of her professional life and hops a train to the countryside, where she inadvertently winds up applying for a job as a housekeeper at a large estate. Trouble is, she can't cook or clean! If this sounds a bit far-fetched and movie-ish, that's because it is: The book reads like a 400-page screenplay treatment, written in such haste that the authenticating details will be filled in later by someone hired by the studio for their expertise in the field. "I love my job," gushes Samantha, whom we are to believe is the most precocious legal mind in the history of her firm. "I love spotting a loophole in a contract. I love the thrill of negotiation, and arguing my case, and making the sharpest point in the room. I love the adrenaline rush of closing a deal." If this vague, generalized notion of what it means to be a lawyer is grounds for partnership at London's best firm, anyone who's ever watched an episode of "Law and Order" should expect a promotion.
Quibbles about plausibility and good writing aside, this book has the plot of a lovely romantic comedy, and someday we will all go to see Renee Zellweger or one of her winsome counterparts looking alarmed as she contemplates the many mysteries of a food processor. Until then, if you're desperate for a crowd-pleasing ending and you've already read everything by Helen Fielding, this book will have to do. *
Francesca Delbanco's first novel, "Ask Me Anything," was just released in paperback.