June 11, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination

Current Status
In Season
Helen Fielding
We gave it a F

Boozy old Bridget Jones sure was a good-time girl, twitching around town in a bunny suit, fussing over her five extra lbs., always falling for the wrong fellow. But then the mad success of Helen Fielding’s novels, ”Bridget Jones’s Diary” and ”Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason,” ushered in the era of chick lit — two glib, overused words that smack of smug condescension — and suddenly Bridget’s innocent exploits lost some of their allure. Blame Fielding for recent wet-noodle reads like ”The Devil Wears Prada” and ”The Nanny Diaries.” (Then take a moment to pity all the young women writers out there who’ve been unfairly corralled into the chick-lit stable.) As if she hadn’t already wreaked enough havoc, Fielding has now gone and written what may be the worst novel of the year. Quick, someone throw a pink drink in her face.

The jacket copy on Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination teases, ”Move over, 007: a stunning, sexy…new player has entered the world of international espionage armed with her own pocket survival kit, her Rules for Living…and a very special underwire bra.” Olivia, a poor man’s Bridget Jones, is a bumbling freelance reporter for London’s Sunday Times who wants to write serious news stories but for the fact that her lousy editor has her on the fluff beat. Begrudgingly, she’s off to Miami for the launch of a new face cream from a ”white rapper slash model slash actress.” Fielding takes some sharp jabs at celebrity publicists (”a woman in a black trouser suit powered over, arranging her face into the sort of frightening white-toothed smile that looks like that of an angry monkey”) and boy bands (”beneath the surf-white hair, their complexions displayed a fascinating mixture of sunburnt crispiness and acne”). Everything’s rolling mindlessly along, until al-Qaeda shows up and spoils all the fun.

Olivia meets Pierre Ferramo, who says he’s a movie producer, though he really reminds her of Osama bin Laden. (Her nonsensical tip-offs are ”the hooded eyes, the sense of intelligence and power, the languid movements.”) What’s a single girl to do? Make out with the man, of course! But then terrorists strike Miami Beach and kill more than 200 people. Olivia ”closed her eyes, thinking about a woman she had seen on television after the Twin Towers came down…. She had lost a son and was talking tough.” While it’s fun to watch Sydney Bristow’s eyes go all big and moist when bombs go off on Alias, there’s something less palatable about Olivia’s clumsy grappling with another 9/11 inflicted by real-life bad guys.

Our heroine inevitably falls for a rugged CIA operative and they suffer through a wooden romance and help make the modern world a safer place. (”’Safe?’ she said, eyes flashing. ‘When is anything ever safe?…’ ‘Yeah,’ he said softly, sexily. ‘I know. Sometimes you just have to throw yourself over the edge, baby, and roll.”’) With the general public already on edge about the possibility of future attacks, should a silly summer read really wallow in a cheap al-Qaeda subplot? Folks turn to novels with neon martini glasses on the cover to escape their fears of death tolls and nerve gas and bridge bombings. Fielding has once again invented a new genre: terror trash.

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