Monday, 10 September 2007

Macho Silliness

Have you ever been on a tube, train or bus and been embarrassed by the book you are reading?

I have read two books by Melissa Bank recently, called The Girls Guide to Hunting and Fishing and The Wonder Spot. Both have been marketed as ‘chick lit’ (a horrible phrase designed to ghettoise female authors) and thus have what might politely be called ‘girly’ covers (see picture left).

I have found myself, despite my better judgement, slightly embarrassed to be seen reading these books on the tube, bus or train. Even worse is to be seen in a pub or café reading them. I hate the ingrained macho attitudes that this reveals about me. And trust me, macho is not normally an adjective associated with me! I would not normally have picked up either book, except I read Nick Hornby's Polysyllabic Spree and he spoke so highly of her. The covers and their general placement was enough to ensure I, stupidly, would have missed out on something special.

These are wonderful books. Bank writes about the relationships, careers and family ties of young women in big cities (in this case, New York). The bright sparks at Penguin have decided that this means that Bank can’t appeal to anybody outside of the people she writes about. I don’t envy publisher’s who are trying to break a new writer. Girl's Guide was a huge success when it was first released, but it took about 7 years for Bank to write a follow-up with Wonder Spot, which in publishing terms means that they might as well be launching a new author.

But Bank deserves something more than this calculated attempt at niche marketing. Her stories are warm, funny and beautifully written, full of brilliantly sketched characters that most people, male or female, will be able to identify with. Girl's Guide is a bit more fragmented, but has one hilarious story about the trouble the main character gets into when trying to follow a relationship self-help book which is begging for the Hollywood treatment. It could be a rom-com version of How to Succeed in Business (Without Really Trying).

The Wonder Spot is even better – more mature and thoughtful, but maintaining the biting wit and pitch perfect sense of dialogue from her debut. Bank has more control of her vignette style – parts of it reminded me slightly of Patrick Marber’s Closer whereby we see the beginning and end of several relationships. But unlike Closer, whose misanthropy made for an ultimately one-dimensional experience, The Wonder Spot is far better at capturing the initial stages of flirtation as well as the malaise which then starts to seep into a seemingly fine relationship without resorting to hysterical demonisation of either partner. And Bank may be even better at catching the pitch and flow of sibling and parental relationships.
If I could get you to run out and buy one of the books, then give The Wonder Spot a try. It warmed the cockles as no book has done for a while.