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R&R 129 | The Undomestic Goddess

Sophie Kinsella
The Undomestic Goddess
First published in: 2005
This edition: Black Swan, 2006
ISBN: 9780552772747
Genre: chick lit
Pages: 416
Cover illustration by Gavin Reece; design by Stephen Mulcahey

R&R 129 | The Undomestic Goddess

I'm fine with books that aren't perky and happy. I'll read those that move me to tears. But I need some laughter and fun at times, too. I stocked up on chick lit the first weekend of April, and read one immediately. I needed it (as well as a glass of red wine). Sophie Kinsella is usually a safe bet if you want giggles and enjoyment.

THE UNDOMESTIC GODDESS offers plenty of humor, as Samantha Sweeting finds herself in a rather silly situation all of the sudden. A smart – with an IQ of 158 – and driven lawyer, Sam is up for partnership at London's most prestigious law firm… but then there's The Error. The one Sam made, costing the firm 50 million pounds, most likely costing Sam her job. In a humiliated daze, Sam flees the city, taking a train to some obscure town in the Cotswolds, where she's quickly mistaken to be the applicant for a new job as housekeeper for the Geigers. Sam figures her life in London is as good as over. Why not… start somewhere fresh? So, she takes the job.
There is just one catch. Sam has absolutely zero, NIL experience at housework. She can't even make toast. Needless to say, the Geigers' new housekeeper is anything but the domestic goddess they believe her to be…

Yes. This one's very silly indeed, but it offered me what I needed at the time, which is several giggles. Sam is, despite some inconsistencies which I'll get to in a moment, a very sympathetic character and I enjoyed her story, generally, because of her likability. She does remind me of SHOPAHOLIC's Becky Bloomwood, but Sam's far less irritating and you know, less crazy. She has more of Becky's better qualities.

The setting is lovely; I'm a fan of rural England, especially the Cotswolds: utterly charming and visually stunning. I could picture being there. Kinsella did make me feel like I was completely in the Cotswolds zone during this read.

And then there's the romance, which is predictable – The gorgeous gardener? Hello Captain Obvious – but very, very cute nonetheless. There is chemistry between Sam and Nathaniel. I simply took a shine to him, because he seems to be a great guy and a fine love interest. Not too perfect, not too confident, a quiet one. I liked that he owns a pub, too. His mother Iris is a warm character I instanly adored. Even the Geigers are somewhat likeable, though they are a handful at times.

I never have high standards when I read chick lit, that would be unreasonable, but several things about GODDESS bothered me.

For one, Sam uses her real name while on her rural hideout from the world, but in this day and age of Google – and her Error being all that's talked about online – surely… I mean, the Geigers strike me as the Curious Kind, and they do own computers. Sam should've used a fake name to make the story a bit more believable.

But either way, the story borders on ridiculous at times; Sam is supposed to have an IQ of 158 but I was convinced throughout the book that she's actually dumb as a doorknob. A lot of housework isn't so much about being a full-on domestic who's handy with everything, as it is about having common sense. It's trial and error, and usually you catch on quickly enough. But not as quickly as Sam catches on the art of cuisine. In a few weekends she can bake the perfect double-layered cake and cook her way through French cuisine. For a girl who didn't know how to boil an egg properly to become Britain's master chef over the span of a few weeks, now that's equally doubtful.

A supersmart lawyer doesn't know how to make toast, thus is actually an idiot; several weeks later said idiot is the new Julia Child, thus is actually a genius. I could not suspend my disbelief in either case.

But you can kind of see it coming, a book entitled THE UNDOMESTIC GODDESS – of course at the end of it all, she's a rockstar in the housekeeping department. The book is generally predictable: I knew what the deal was with Sam's Error immediately.

I also noticed a bit of a black and white view of London/city versus the countryside. London career life is soul-sucking, unsocial, lifeless, pale skinned miserableness – while life in the country is pure and good… blah blah. Career women have lives too, though admittedly women like Sam who live and breathe for partnership may be taking it a step too far. But it doesn't mean that life as a domestic in the country is all contentment either. It depends on who you are and what you want out of life and what makes you happy.

But I do understand that Sam needs to figure out what she wants, and what she wants isn't the career and city life anymore. She needs to see the good in the other side of things. (Sam, thankfully, does evolve and learns a lot in this story.)

Finally, the ending, I won't give it away, but it is disappointing because it's all over the place. The book "ends" several times, at least that's how it feels. But then Kinsella has a change of heart and inserts another plot twist. And another, and one more. The reader feels kind of pulled in every direction.
I do wish Kinsella would have made the ending less of a roller coaster, and focused her energy and pages instead on providing closure on other storylines and characters which had been left somewhat in the balance. What happens to the Geigers, what happens to selected people from Sam's law firm, Sam's relationship with her mother…? It would have been better if GODDESS had been a bit more neatly wrapped up. It's hard to explain this one, because I can so easily give something away, but I'll just say that GODDESS would've been a more satisfying read had Kinsella allowed her characters to go through with some necessary confrontations.

Overall I did enjoy the book. I was looking for breezy and funny and I got that, of course I did. THE UNDOMESTIC GODDESS is a fun read, perfectly light, but it's not without its flaws. But I wasn't looking for much, and its cuteness makes GODDESS alright enough for me.

R&R 128 | Chasing Harry Winston

I'm back. With a vengeance. First review in a while, and it's delightfully snarky.

Lauren Weisberger
Chasing Harry Winston
First published in: 2008
This edition: HarperCollins, 2008 (ISBN 978-0-00-726271-7)
Genre: chick lit
Pages: 278
Cover design by: unknown

book128-winston-1000px

As I'm gazing outside the window of my Amsterdam-based windmill home, overlooking the tulip fields while sipping milk from my Delft Blue mug and nibbling on a chunk of Gouda, I find myself applauding Lauren Weisberger's keen knowledge of Dutch people. My wooden shoes are a worthy rival to any female Manhattanite's Manolo's, perfectly matching my milkmaid outfit. A fat joint completes the ensemble. I really should head out soon and stick my finger in a dike, so I will hurry up and continue this book review.

CHASING HARRY WINSTON is about three best "friends" (yes, quote unquote) whom each decide something about their lives should change. Brazilian socialite Adriana figures that at 30, she really should get married. Emmy, recently dumped by longtime boyfriend Duncan, feels the opposite is true for her: she needs to have sex. Lots of it. And Leigh, well… she doesn't really know what needs to change, until she meets author Jesse Chapman, a well-known player and the only person who seems to get Leigh to loosen up a little.

You're probably wondering what's with the intro. Well, suffice it to say that Weisberger's need to throw in THE single most irritating stereotype about my people no later than page 3 is the reason why CHASING HARRY WINSTON is officially the book I felt the need to throw across the room quicker than any other irritating book. "Since everyone knew Dutch people wear clogs," Weisberger insists. Lame.

The only thing that's even more lame about this book is its poor attempt at recreating a successful story: three "close" girlfriends, each very different from the other, discuss their sex lives / relationships with one and other in Manhattan. Sex and the City, anyone? (Candace Bushnell even gets a plug in the end of the book.)

Oh and I say "close" and "friends" quote/unquote, because while Weisberger tries to convince us readers that Leigh, Adriana and Emmy are besties, I'm thinking these women are sooner jealous of one and other, thinking their catty thoughts, rather than super tight. I liked Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha. All of them different, all of them with their flaws, but all of them sympathetic – and actually close to one and other. Believable friends, and believable characters. Any woman can relate to one of them (or a combination). I could not relate to any of Weisberger's leading ladies.

– Adriana is vain, shallow and full of herself; Weisberger stresses this by pointing out ad nauseam how every man lusts after her and how fabulous she is. If you thought the Dutch stereotype was annoying: Weisberger does not do the Brazilian woman justice, either. I wonder if Gisele goes around saying "querida" every ten seconds, too.
– Leigh is cold and selfish in a way. There's no personality there. I have nothing to write about her, even.
– Emmy is the only one I felt a remote interest in initially, despite her "Tour de Whore". Which is another problem I have with this book. It seems that either Emmy is a prude for having "slept with ONLY 3 (?!) men in her entire life" (it's just not normal!!! Something must be wrong with her), but when she sleeps with 3 more men in this book, she's prostituting herself. I don't even understand why Weisberger is putting her character through it. It's so obvious that Emmy hates the whole thing, craving a steady relationship, that ring around her finger. It makes her seem rather pathetic and desperate at times, clinging to her one-night stands, becoming whiny and unlikable as a result. Pity. Am I to believe she really changed at all?

None of them really change or grow up. Not in a worthy way. What is the point to this book? I really couldn't find one. CHASING HARRY WINSTON is just a bad book. Not only is it shallow and vapid, but the writing itself is appalling.

It's disjointed and lazy. One moment the characters are enjoying (well…) their vacation in Curacao, and just when it gets a bit interesting, BAM!, we're back to Leigh in New York some time later, where she's waiting for a client. It threw me off. Why not finish the Curacao storyline? Why even bring it up if you're not going to follow through with it? The writing is lazy in other aspects as well, an example being that Leigh is at one point in the book referred to by Weisberger as "Leah". Every character (except Adriana, obviously) favors "sweetheart" over any other term of endearment.

Why did I even finish this book? Because I didn't want to abandon yet another one.

I liked THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA and enjoyed EVERYONE WORTH KNOWING, and I'll stand by my reviews of each. But I'm tired of Weisberger's attitude. Hanging out and playing poker with mechanics (p. 156) is somehow beneath the fabulous life of limos and movie stars and fame. Emmy's either a prude or a whore. There's the typical idea that women should spend hours daily blow-drying their locks. (I'm sorry, but ughhhh, the vanity in this book.) Otis the parrot is apparently too fat and needs to have a makeover. (No joke. This is actually in the book.)

And finally, Weisberger completely offends Rosie O'Donnell, stating that in a Who Wore it Better? stand-off, there wasn't even a 0% to 100% outcome when comparing Rosie O'Donnell, who in my opinion is fucking FABULOUS, to Petra Nemcova, a supermodel (Weisberger clearly insinuating that it should have been 0 to 100). See? Shallow. Okay. I got one for you.

Who Wrote it Better?
Candace Bushnell, 100% – Lauren Weisberger, 0%.

>> On a different note, please visit my revived personal blog Miss-Cellophane.com 🙂

R&R 113 | Everyone Worth Knowing

Lauren Weisberger
Everyone Worth Knowing
First published in: 2005
This edition: Downtown Press, 2006
ISBN: 978-0-7432-6233-0
Genre: chick lit
Pages: 367
Cover design by Evan Gaffney

book113-everyone-1000px

Before I got my wisdom teeth removed last month, I already figured I'd be useless, simply curled up on the sofa, with blankets and pillows, stuffing my chipmunk cheeked face with painkillers and custard, wishing I could simply go to sleep and wake up a week later, healed up and sans agony. Reading the day away was the next best thing. So that's what I did. My book of choice was EVERYONE WORTH KNOWING by Lauren Weisberger (followed by LAST CHANCE SALOON by Marian Keyes – to be reviewed later). A light and uplifting read, perfect for someone who had the attention span of a gnat due to discomfort, pain and hunger.

Bette Robinson's job is, well, it's just terrible. Working as a banker is hardly what she imagined herself to be doing when grown up. In an a-typical impulsive moment, Bette decides to quit, and discovers funemployment – the fun of which doesn't usually last long. One can only walk her dog so many times before realizing something needs to change. Luckily, thanks to her uncle, Bette scores a job working for Kelly, who owns one of Manhattan's top PR firms, and gets a taste of the life: parties, nightclubs, celebrities… and being the subject of nasty gossip columns.

The premise sounds pretty typical – young single girl in Manhattan working way up the career ladder while living the life of exclusivity, getting herself (manipulated) into crazy situations. I'm personally growing pretty weary of Manhattan as the back drop for so many of these kinds of books and having the importance of "being someone in New York (and only New York)" stressed all the time.

…there are many similarities to THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, another of Weisberger's books, but I somehow still feel EVERYONE WORTH KNOWING is a tad bit better (and I'm going to be in the minority here) because it seems more successfully satirical.
It's been three years since I've read THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, so I've been racking my brain trying to describe the reason why, but I can't remember feeling as enthusiastic about it as I do with EVERYONE WORTH KNOWING.

In DEVIL, which – as I understand it – is supposed to take a harder stand against "that world" (being based on Anna Wintour and Vogue all), too many names are dropped and brands are mentioned – e.g. product placement – which left me feeling upon finishing that DEVIL is, if anything, one big advertisement. EVERYONE WORTH KNOWING is a little less extreme in defaming the Manhattan elite, and also less extreme in namedropping. It doesn't try so hard either way.

Albeit less than in DEVIL, Lauren Weisberger still plays for both teams somewhat in EVERYONE WORTH KNOWING: what does she want (from us)? To love Manhattan's elite, or hate it? To have it be relevant, or not?
Are we, readers, meant to be in awe at all the celebrities and exclusivity… or have any disgust with the material world justified? Most likely both – Weisberger to me seems to want to please everybody without really taking a clear stand. (I ended my review of DEVIL: "Lauren Weisberger, Choo's your alliance." – I still feel this way.)

Bette for instance has never before heard of a Birkin Bag. I live in a hole in The Netherlands and while I like bags, I don't really give a crap about labels. Even I know what a Birkin Bag is. Then again, several pages later Bette flawlessly describes one man's entire outfit, including his "men's latest orange Pumas".
I would have perhaps been less hard on the author if Bette really knew zilch about Birkin Bags AND orange puma's AND Armani dresses. This was my main problem with DEVIL. The heroine is supposed to be sort of an antagonist against the material world, yet it is made too relevant – it's Prada this, Blahnik that.

It's inconsistent, but consistently so – not 1, but 2 of Weisberger's books have left me feeling this way.

Weisberger's none too kind about Kelly or her employees, having them drink too much, snort whatever can be snorted up their noses and making sure the (fictional) celeb is a complete tool. But they live the life, and Weisberger does glam it up. What's a banker compared to someone in PR, after all?

What makes EVERYONE WORTH KNOWING worth reading is Bette: she helps to make the book more likable. Bette is one of the most lovely characters I've ever "met" in the chick lit genre. She is like a breath of fresh air to me: very sympathetic and sensible enough, swept away in Manhattan's society but never losing herself in it. Bette doesn't sell out, much preferring her beloved Harlequin book club as opposed to hanging out with slimy celebrities.

Yes, Bette lacks initiative and a back bone, but I don't seek a perfect heroine and couldn't help but adore her, which is very important when reading chick lit – for me anyway. I only read the first part of the SHOPAHOLIC series and felt no need to continue it, mostly because Rebecca Bloomwood frustrated me too much.
Bette is in ways someone I can relate to, despite so many life differences. I think her personality just speaks to me.

The sub-story about her friendships with Penelope and Michael is poor though; Penelope's sub-story seems like predictable filler, and Michael fades away into the background.
One point of irritation regards the gay uncle, whose abundant use of "darling" bothers me to no end; it's like he is channeling the ladies of "Absolutely Fabulous", and doing it badly. Add to that his die-hard republican-ism and I can't help but to shout "SERIOUSLY?!" and shake my head.

But the most important sub-story is sweet and successful: there's a lot of chemistry between Bette and her love interest, their story nicely developed. Definitely swoon material, which is also very important for chick lit. Perhaps – together with a likable narrator – even more than an author taking a clear stand.

I just can't help but to think like a critic more and more. Three years of book reviewing has altered the way I read books: while I can enjoy a book for what it is, I do mentally note the best and worst about it. I think about every book and ask myself questions. So this review will probably come across as very critical.

But ask me the question, "did you enjoy reading it?" – I'll answer, yes. Because I really did. Despite the inconsistencies, despite my questioning Weisberger's satirical merits, EVERYONE WORTH KNOWING is a perfectly pleasant read. Dental work or not.

R&R 108 | Brand New Friend

Mike Gayle
Brand New Friend
First published in: 2005
This edition: Hodder and Stoughton 2005
ISBN: 0-340-89565-9
Genre: humor, chick & ladlit
Pages: 344
Cover design & illustration – unfortunately uncredited :/
Guest appearance by Wil – the Harry to my Sally

R&R 108 | Brand New Friend

Mike Gayle is my go-to-guy if I need a break from tedious reading, or a tedious series of events in life. He rarely disappoints.
…I was reading THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING when I decided to put that down for a while, favoring a regular British bloke over a bunch of hobbits fretting over a ring. Sorry Tolkien. It's nothing personal. One of these days, I will continue your book. (I do like LotR, don't get me wrong. I just haven't been able to finish it, yet.)
But at that moment, I needed to just pick up a book: mind on zero, feet up, enjoy. I picked up BRAND NEW FRIEND.

Rob's girlfriend Ashley's sick of commuting: it's time to take the "long-distance" out of "long-distance relationship", and move in together. Rob hasn't got much of a choice (it's moving or losing her): after some thinking, he decides to take the step and to move to Manchester to be with her. This move won't hurt his career much: he can continue to work from home, a home he now shares with his wonderful girlfriend.
No, the biggest sacrifice is that he has to leave his best friend behind. Rob's confident that he's made the right choice by going with Ashley, but he can't shake this feeling of loneliness, an empty space (next to his bar stool) that only a best mate can fill again.
Months go by, however, and still no luck. Where's Rob's new best friend?? And then, he meets the perfect new pal. Except Jo, well…

…Jo's a girl.

Brand New Friend was enjoyable, and I finished it easily and happily, but it wasn't my favorite book of Gayle's. It was Rob's fault: I found him to be a whiny fellow, the type who has an unhealthy dependency: having friends no more than three feet removed from his own person. The bloke dates he went on (placing adverts in the paper hoping to meet a new best friend) made for very amusing reading material, but I couldn't help thinking Rob was a little desperate and slightly pathetic in a silly way. He's got it good: a great relationship, a new home and a snazzy job. I mean… there was overreaction. Lots of it.
Then again, it did make him rather funny at times. I found myself sighing and shaking my head while laughing at him a little. He actually was, throughout it all, endearing.

Dude, it's okay to be alone every now and then. And true friendship defies any distance. I didn't see the problem, personally. I didn't see why the London best mate was suddenly written off as being a valid best mate. Because of some distance? Ah.

I also recognized a lot of Rob's character traits in Mike Gayle's other male protagonists, so it did feel like I've read about this guy before, even though I haven't. Mike's 'blokes' tend to be alike in ways.

Another complaint I have focuses on Rob's Ashley: she seems a little bit too perfect. I don't know a lot of women who don't freak out when their man regularly hangs out with another single woman, just the two of them, forming a(n emotional) connection together. Not when the two friends hide it from the girlfriend for a good while before laying the surprise on her. Secrecy usually implies there's something to hide, and no girlfriend really trusts anything between her boyfriend and his girly friend after all that sneaking around. Not really. Not like Ashley does.

So is it possible for a man and woman to be friends, just friends? And with that, I mean absolutely zero sexual tension? Purely platonic? For both of them? And both of them are straight? Hmmmm…. I don't know. WHEN HARRY MET SALLY comes to mind. (Love that movie. "Pecan pieeeeeee.") But surely, it must be possible.
Bless those who can make it work. Good for them, I say!

In Rob and Jo's case I think I would have preferred to see the girlfriend make a big deal out of it. Because that's real life for ya, in most cases. It would also have made both Rob's relationship and his friendship face a bigger, and real challenge. Juicy reading material! Missed opportunities. Ashley's too-optimistic-to-be-believable reaction made the built up tension (of keeping "it's Jo actually, not Joe" a secret from her) fall a bit flat.

Lots of kudos are in order though: Mike Gayle is a formulaic author, yes, but BRAND NEW FRIEND was surprising; I didn't see the ending coming as much as I usually do with Gayle's novels, and I applaud the unpredictability of this one. I really didn't expect a lot of what happened.

Furthermore, I now do understand what is meant when people praise a book or movie to be "full of belly laughs" – I had plenty of those as I read. Deep, heartfelt laughter – this book is another feelgood novel. Once I got somewhat over Rob's cry-baby demeanor, I really did enjoy this book. Brand New Friend wasn't Gayle's best novel, but it was certainly more than good enough.

It's not often that I feel I get to know a person by the books he writes. Mike Gayle seems like such a wonderful and nice guy. He's kind of a friend to me, not a brand new one, but a dear old, loyal friend, always there for me when I need him. His books provide me with laughs, company and a general feeling of well-being.

Again. That's all I ask for.