Mad About The Boy, by Helen Fielding (Jonathan Cape, 2013)
Helen Fielding and I go back a long way. I’ve never met her, but I loved her first novel, Cause Celeb. Published in 1994, it looked at the role of western celebrities in famine relief charities. It was a funny, angry book, ironic, upsetting and timely.
I remember noticing that the voice of Cause Celeb’s first-person narrator seemed similar to that of a columnist in The Independent who, under the pseudonym Bridget Jones, wrote wittily about being a young single woman struggling with career, calories and carnal desire. But I didn’t finally make the connection until Bridget Jones became a megastar.
Bridget Jones’ Diary – openly authored by Helen Fielding – first came out in 1996 and was soon a bestseller. There was a sequel, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, and two successful films. The name Bridget Jones entered the language as a byword for a young woman who wants a man, but can’t find one who will treat her decently.
Mad About The Boy is the first Bridget Jones novel for 13 years. The world has moved on, and so has Bridget. She has found the love of a good man – and lost it. She is a widow, a mother of two. She is grieving, sexually hungry, and still counting calories. And technology has granted her a new anxiety: has she enough followers on Twitter?
All of which is in keeping with an older version of the Bridget we remember from the 90s. Less believable is the way that, as a single parent living in London in 2013, without regular employment or apparent reliance on benefits, she seems to have no money worries. Presumably her late husband left her something, but at a time when even relatively wealthy people feel financially beleaguered, it would have given the novel a harder edge if we could have seen how Bridget and her children actually get by. My credulity was also strained by Bridget being employed by a film company to update Ibsen’s play Hedda Gabler, despite her ignorance of the original’s authorship (she thinks it was by Chekhov) and her inability to spell the name of the main character.
Still, there is plenty in Mad About The Boy to enjoy, laugh at and sympathise with. Bridget’s clumsiness when, still missing her husband, she tries to re-enter the world of dating, is touchingly observed. So is the support of her friends and exes, some of whom have crossed over from the earlier Bridget Jones books. But there is too much repetition, particularly of the more visceral jokes. There’s only so much humour to be wrung out of headlice, pubic lice, or the sensation of kissing the mouth of someone whom you love dearly but who has just been sick.
The diary format is sometimes oddly handled: “10.01pm. Doorbell. Thank God. But who can it be at this time of night?”? If “Thank God” really means that she welcomes any caller, why does she stop to write her diary before letting them in?
Most mysteriously of all, the final entry of the diary is dated December 31 2013: three months after the publication of the hardback, and presumably even longer after Helen Fielding finished writing it. Are we to conclude that Bridget can foretell the future? That the happy ending (which I won’t reveal) is just a fantasy? Whatever the joke/trick/mistake is here, it will have been overtaken by the date of the paperback publication, July 13 2014. I will be looking to see if the ending has changed.
Reviewed by Zoe Fairbairns.