There are plenty of reasons to grumble about chick lit: the puke-pink packaging, often abysmal writing, wafer-thin plots, or that relentless preoccupation with boys and shopping. But the real problem with chick lit these days is not the “lit” but the “chick”.
In women’s literature—be it a fairy tale such as Snow White or serious fiction à la The Handmaiden’s Tale—the heroine is what sells us, the female readers, on the story. When done well, we identify with her troubles, laugh at her foibles, and cheer her on in her joy.
What then are we to make of Tara Malhotra, finance expert and Newly Returned Indian, bona fide yummy mummy with a gorgeous, rich husband and adorable four-year-old son? Amrita Chowdhury’s literary debut, Faking It (Hachette), starts with the happy ending and heads downhill in every way possible.
Girl power: Sex and the City redefined characters in the chick-lit genre
For all the trappings of happiness, all is not well in NRI paradise. Tara is mad as hell with hubby dear for dragging her to Mumbai just to fulfil his dreary career ambitions. Fuming in her lavishly appointed luxury suite, she plots revenge. The plan: Freeze out husband, neglect child, flirt with sleazy American man, envy air-head socialites, and buy overpriced—and, oops, fake—art.
The tedious art theft angle aside, a spoilt little princess with a victim complex does not a chick-lit heroine make. It’s always a bad sign when the reader finds herself rooting not for Tara’s vindication but her richly deserved comeuppance.
At her most endearing, the chick-lit heroine is the eternally distressed damsel plagued by all the usual modern-day feminine complaints. We adore Bridget Jones precisely because she is chubby, smokes too much, loves all the wrong men, and is prone to flashing her huge freckled butt on national TV. The neat little happy ending is mere icing; the true joy lies in the chaos: the petty humiliations, near and total social disasters, lapses in judgement and taste, vicissitudes of errant lovers and fate.
The chick-lit archetype is a 21st century Cinderella looking for her happily-ever-after, now served with a dollop of respect and self-knowledge on the side. Our inner feminist may despair, but let’s not forget that chick-lit rescued poor old Cinders from the cellar, put her in a miniskirt with a yummy cosmo in hand and, best of all, gave her a fabulous sense of humour. What’s not to like about that!
Cinderella may have gone upmarket, but for her to remain beloved she must remain, as always, the underdog. She can be shallow, foolish or just plain dumb, but never privileged. She is the personal assistant in The Devil Wears Prada, not a blonde, skinny model; the “rather large” hotel manager in Almost Single, not a socialite with a five-star lifestyle; the nice girl from Karol Bagh who lands the cricket captain in The Zoya Factor, not a Page 3 babe with a string of boldfaced boyfriends.
And certainly not a 25-year-old bored diva leading a suitably dissipated life of excess: too many parties, too many boys (at least by good desi standards). Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan’s Arshi in You Are Here is discontented, cynical and unhappy: “The trouble with my life is that it’s like a bra strap when you put your bra on wrong.” Yes, it’s tough being young, pretty and popular in south Delhi, and life doesn’t get any worse than an ill-fitting bra.
Faking It: Hachette India, 340 pages, Rs250
Chick-lit heroines are always striving, mostly for love, sometimes for money, always for salvation. Arshi, however, is too much the jaded sophisticate to be looking for anything; that would be way uncool. Madhavan claims her book isn’t chick lit, but it ain’t J.D. Salinger either. Just a whole lot of whining from a girl who doesn’t have much to complain about.
Where Madhavan can claim a refreshing sexual candour, Faking It offers no such consolation. Tara is moody, neurotic and superficial—an Indian Becky Bloomwood without the mitigating optimism or infectious humour. Sophie Kinsella’s incurably daft “shopaholic” is the rare chick-lit heroine who already has it made, but even Becky has enough sense to revel in her good fortune rather than deride it.
Explaining the appeal of chick lit, Kinsella says women “want to read books about things which they can relate to... just help them escape, entertain them, make them laugh, make them feel good”. Rule 1 in helping us do all of the above: Remember, now and forever, that the heroine of our collective romantic fantasy is Cinderella, not her cranky, entitled stepsister.
Write to Lakshmi at firstname.lastname@example.org