They’re young. They’re attractive. They’re smart. And caught between neurotic parents, mortifying dinner parties, and inscrutable men, the heroines of three new novels are trying to wade through their supposedly roaring 20s while keeping their spirits (and diets) intact. Though they certainly owe a debt to the cult of Bridget Jones, these tales offer more than romantic-comedy bits. And they’re giving us a much better reason to flop onto a beach towel and commiserate than the usual Jackie Collins-esque parade of summer reading fare.
For Libby Mason, the protagonist of Jane Green’s ”Mr. Maybe,” there ain’t nothing a little retail therapy can’t cure. Possessing a wardrobe replete with Armani, Gucci, Tod’s, and Prada, Libby leads a fashionable life as a celebrity publicist in London. After a series of failed romances, she meets Nick, a sexy writer who, unfortunately for her lady-who-lunches aspirations, is on the dole. When their dalliance goes bust, she falls into a relationship with Ed, a stodgy financier who woos her with his Platinum AmEx…never mind that he has to speed-read ”The Joy of Sex” to make their sex life bearable. While the outcome of her romantic quandary — does she choose Nick’s love or Ed’s stability? — is never really in question, it’s Libby’s jags on the single life (”Men…they’re crawling out of the woodwork, except the ones who crawl out to meet me are always worms”) that keep the story humming.
Yet another publicist stars in Anna Maxted’s ”Running in Heels.” Natalie Miller is a repressed, painfully polite flack, so it’s no surprise that she gets sacked from her job early on. As she tries to find scraps of self-worth amid the rubble of her failed career, druggie boyfriend, and casserole-wielding mother, her insecurities morph into full-blown anorexia. While flawed — Maxted relies on the word bleat way too much, and situations often take on an irritating, ”Three’s Company” level of farce — Running is populated with a cast of entertaining characters, from Natalie’s firefighter best friend, Babs, to the crabby, postfeminist Frannie (”You, the compliant child, are permitting his fantasies of potency and authority — thanks to you, these fantasies become factasies”).
Across the pond and on the other side of the body-image spectrum, we meet Cannie Shapiro, heroine of Jennifer Weiner’s crackling debut, ”Good in Bed.” Cannie is an ambitious entertainment journalist (we like her already) with a plus-size figure and a wicked wit to match. But when she happens upon a national magazine column penned by her ex (titled ”Loving a Larger Woman”), she’s propelled to begin a journey that takes her everywhere from a Philly weight-loss clinic to an L.A. sojourn with Hollywood starlet Maxi Ryder (a hilarious, barely veiled send-up of Minnie Driver). Dealing with her prickly ex, a newly out mother, and some really unexpected news along the way, Cannie emerges as one of the most engaging, realistic female characters in years. And it doesn’t hurt that Weiner’s smoothly written novel is stuffed with dialogue that rings with humor and truth. (Ryder on her love troubles: ”Everybody knows! Entertainment Weekly did a whole story. With a flow chart!”) Mr. Maybe: B Running in Heels: B- Good in Bed: A