Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

'Confessions of a Shopaholic': If Patricia Highsmith Wrote Chick Lit

This isn't Peyton Place, kids. Confessions of a Shopaholic isn't even strictly "Classic," but, as a reader pointed out last time, it's 11 years old now, and, honestly, that makes it basically Jude the Obscure, right? It's older than Facebook, so deal.

Confessions of a Shopaholic (or The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic, if you're from Jude the Obscure's literary homeland) is the first in a series of six (!) novels following the excruciatingly useless Becky Bloomwood through her pointless, awful Hellmouth of a life, which, since there is No God, somehow rewards her again and again for her near-sociopathic narcissism and twittery charm. She is like a Balrog, but with accessories. She is the Void that stares back into us.

Also? Until yesterday? I had only read the first five books, and didn't even know about Mini Shopaholic (it has bred, sweet Jesus). Rectified!

I love these books. I love everything about them. I love how Becky Bloomwood is completely devoid of sexuality: I imagine that she looks like a Ken Doll when she doesn't have her adorable little pants on. I love how she learns nothing, ever, and is a worse person in each subsequent novel. These are the chick lit novels that Patricia Highsmith would have written, had she been born in a different time, and been forced to write books that could be sold with ribbon belts on the cover.

Do you remember the unfortunate novelist in Stephen King's Misery? Do you remember how he wrote a jokey-spoof version in which his protagonist gets reamed by her German Shepherd for three hundred pages? Sometimes I imagine that Sophie Kinsella (who is really quite skillful; props to you, madam) has TWENTY SUCH BECKY BLOOMWOOD NOVELS sitting in a lockbox in her country home in the Cotswolds, which she drags out at intimate dinner parties for fabulous staged readings. And, in these novels, instead of humping dogs, Becky Bloomwood just casually kills people to get those things she covets (We covet what we see everyday). Scarves, darling little shoes, luggage. Sandwiches!

I digress.

Becky Bloomwood is, obviously, mentally ill. While she's probably not a sociopath—she just has a shopping addiction—she's also a shitty person. When she rifles through the rich guy's checkbook while he's in the bathroom to figure out his spending habits? After coming thisclose to grifting him for five hundred pounds for a fake charity in remembrance of her fake dead aunt? The rich guy who reminds us so much of that sweet, feckless "Tom" fellow from Four Weddings and a Funeral? You can't handle it. It's like looking directly into the sun.

I, personally, greatly struggle when reading books about people making terrible decisions based on addiction. It's not even their fault! They're addicted, you know? But then I'm reading Bill Clegg's memoir, right, and he's supposed to fly to London for a series of meetings, and he's in a cab on the way to the airport, and you're all, DO NOT ASK THE CABBIE WHERE YOU COULD SCORE SOME CRACK, BILL, your writers need you, and the next thing you know, he's holed up in a Hampton Inn, 20 minutes from Newark, doing a tremendous amount of crack, for several days. Well, every single page of Shopaholic is like that. Becky is holed up doing crack in a Hampton Inn for six books, her crack is just more… nice handbags.

And it drives you nuts! Becky, you say, you have to get right with yourself! You have to buy a Suze Orman book, and start opening your bills, and ranking them by interest rate, and paying them off. You need to brown-bag it! You need to get a real job.

But, whatever, it all works out. In that a rich man falls in love with her. Oh, sure, they make a token effort to show her making better decisions, but, ultimately, Luke Brandon is bailing her ass out. Mazel tov, Becky! So much easier than selling your eggs.

Is it terribly wrong, though, that this series exists? Or is it okay, because we all love Dexter so much and he's a serial killer, and it's very funny sometimes? Why don't we add that to our Discussion Questions, k?

Things Becky Buys That Becky Doesn't Need
• "that suit in Jigsaw"
• "dinner with Suze at Quaglinos"
• "that gorgeous red and yellow rug"
• "that skin brusher thing which I must use"
• "my gorgeous new matching knickers and bra with embroidered yellow rosebuds"
• "a gorgeous blue ceramic plant holder with little elephants going around it"
• "a sweet little silver notebook and pen to write down everything I spend"
• "a photograph album covered in William Morris print, an old-fashioned wooden jigsaw puzzle, a book of fashion photographs, and a fantastic ceramic teapot"
• Some fucking scarf from Denny and George that she doesn't shut up about for three chapters, and is all shimmery and gray-blue

Discussion Questions
• Okay, seriously, did you see the movie? Because I DID NOT, out of general principle. It's set in AMERICA? Bish, please. Let's just move "Downton Abbey" to the Hamptons, amirite?
• Isn't "Downton Abbey" amazing? You can talk about that here, if you've never read Shopaholic and don't plan on it.
• If you didn't have an inner life or a conscience, who would you kill, and why? What would your life look like?
• There's always a possibility that someone reading "Classic Trash" actually lacks an inner life or a conscience. Could you tell us a little bit about it? Apparently, there are more of you people than we can possibly imagine!
• I just rotate a series of Gap t-shirts and Banana Republic jeans, so I can't tell. Does Becky have good taste in fashion, or is this a Claudia Kishi thing, and you don't notice until later?
• Did you ever do crack with Bill Clegg? Would you?
• I didn't even get into the really fun part of the book, which is the determined, polite, increasingly frantic series of letters from her bank manager that begin each chapter. Derek Smeath! Aren't those great?
• Remember when I said she was devoid of sexuality? I had forgotten the part where she attempts to straight-up date-rape a nice young man. "Thinking back, perhaps it look me longer than it should have to guess that he wasn't playing ball, so to speak. In fact, he actually had to punch me in the face to get me off him — although he was very apologetic about it afterward." Oh, young man. Please get some therapy and find the right words to describe your experience.

Nicole Cliffe is the proprietress of Lazy Self-Indulgent Book Reviews.

52 Comments / Post A Comment

DameDudgeon (#1,766)

Nicole, this book was so stressful to read! I couldn't even handle it! Don't do it, Becky! Don't look at his checkbook. He's a nice, horsey fellow who doesn't even care about money that much! You have nothing in common! Ahhh. Just remembering it is giving me anxiety. So yeah, same reaction. (I couldn't even read the sequels. I just kept reminding myself how miserable I was reading the first one whenever I felt like I should real one of the next books.)

@DameDudgeon Oh, God, and she's pretending she likes Wagner, and he's all, don't you love the prelude LA-LA-DI-LA, and she's faking it, and it's so, so uncomfortable. Like Michael Bluth pretending he watched "Sugarfoot."

Megan@twitter (#44,868)

My Becky Bloomwood low point is when for nearly 200 pages pass during which she neglects to tell her mother that she is planning a blowout with some of that Luke Brandon cash, and that the nice family wedding that her mother is planning is not happening. At that point, she wasn't just hurting herself. She was being a raving bitch to her mom for no reason and that was unforgivable.

@Megan@twitter Every time, right?! She ruins lives!

Megan@twitter (#44,868)

@Nicole Cliffe@facebook I hate her so much WHY DO I KEEP READING THESE BOOKS.

@Megan@twitter That was MY breaking point too! I was like JEEZ LOUISE BECKY JUST STOP IT NOW SERIOUSLY. I loved that shit actually changed by the end of the second book, but then the third book? Yikes.

JKJV (#1,068)

Imagine the joy of reading this as a very broke 22-year-old. I hated her and that stupid scarf.

I have read all the books though (except this baby one). Easy reads, plus I get to be judgmental about an imaginary person and not feel guilty about it.

@psych101 I'm obvi reading "Mini Shopaholic" as we speak, and, yeah, her child is Becky, Version 666. She's a vile, terrifying little beast.

Marcia@twitter (#97,567)

I am so glad that I've found people who hate Becky as much as I do. I was told to read this book years ago by women who claimed that I'd "love" and "identify with" the protagonist. DID THEY THINK I WAS A SHOPPING ADDICT? I kept reading the book hoping for her to change. Or something. But no… she was just magically saved by a rich man through NO good works of her own. ARGH.

MissMushkila (#42,100)

My least favorite was the last one where she has the baby. And that gynecologist is after her husband, which is the one thing not to like about the gynecologist (she is successful and smart and references books! and knows Latin!). Okay, yes, the being after someone's husband thing IS fairly significantly horrible.

BUT – please tell me some of y'all out there were completely on the Red Haired Bitch's side when she was all "how can you love this Becky person, she is shallow and stupid?" And then everyone in the book was like "oh but she luuuuurrrves and is all genuine! she just can't help how genuinely she lies about shit WITH HER HEART!"


@MissMushkila Yes! And Luke says, BECAUSE IT'S ALL HE CAN THINK OF: "Well, she had this great idea to have different colours and patterns for checkbook covers!"

riotnrrd (#840)

I worked on this movie and I felt that every outfit "Becky" put on made her look like a clown-fetish prostitute.

Clare (#516)

@riotnrrd My problem with the movie was that for a Jerry Bruckheimer production, it was entirely too low on fiery explosions.

Bittersweet (#765)

@riotnrrd: Yessss, ugh. Pleasant to look at Hugh Darcy, though.

@Clare: Also yessss, starting with nuking the wardrobe.

HoneyWheeler (#100,211)

@riotnrrd Seriously. I remember watching this movie one night, mostly just laughing at her awful wardrobe. I mean, I guess just because you're a shopping addict (er, shopaholic) doesn't mean you have good taste, but her outfits were ludicrously tacky. I've seen toddlers on the playground wth more sophisticated outfits on.

@riotnrrd Colour blocking can go too far.

Mr. B (#10,093)

I had a fun secondhand experience with Sophie Kinsella's "Can You Keep a Secret" about five years ago. I was at Borders with my girlfriend, an ardent Jane Austen/Helen Fielding fan for whom that scene in "Bridget Jones" where Hugh Grant discovers Bridget's granny-panties hit just a little too close to home. Anyway, we were both browsing and she picked up that pink title from the "K" shelf and followed me around with it open in front of her face. Within a couple of minutes she was saying "Oh God! Oh my God!" out loud and actually wringing her hands and giggling and even hopping up and down a little, attracting numerous looks of annoyance and alarm from other shoppers. (I gathered the scene she was experiencing involved the heroine panicking on an airplane and confessing a bunch of embarrassing secrets to a handsome stranger sitting next to her.) This went on for several minutes.

I'm really not sure where I was going with this. But several months later she and I broke up on the dance floor at her best friend's wedding reception — a scene that, in retrospect, seems oddly appropriate.

[Edited to add that I didn't mean to imply I was among those who disapproved of my ladyfriend's behavior in Borders. That scene is actually among my fonder memories from our relationship.]

Victoria (#101,688)

@Mr. B
"Can You Keep A Secret" is my super-favorite Kinsella. I didn't know you could kill a plant with orange juice before…not that I would, I need all the good karma I can get.

MaríaJosé (#4,706)

I teach high school journalism and creative writing. I always ask new students if they like to read and their favorite book. This year they were all like YEAH, BOOKS, READING. And then I found out this is their favorite book ever… I haven't read it but I loved this piece.
Also, at least in the movie version, all of her outfits are either blahhh or plain ugly. Or, clown-fetish prostitute, like riornrrd said.

Maria (#8,920)

@MaríaJosé But yea! Teenagers! Reading!

lobsterhug (#66,323)

Yay! This was everything I thought it would be and more!

My college roomate had the first 3 books and we read them all the time. They were the perfect escape from our far too earnest studies. And I wanted that fucking scarf so bad! And a Luke of my own would have been nice.

Was any one else squigged out by Suze marrying her cousin, however distant?

Also, the movie is quite fun! Isla Fischer is like the embodiment of all Becky's worst qualities but somehow remains utterly sweet at the same time. Obviously would have been better if it had not been set in New York, but Hugh Dancy is a great Luke

Megano! (#16,245)

She so needs to play that Shame game that was on The Hairpin yesterday. That would set her straight. Maybe.
Also omg yes Downton is amazing words cannot describe!!

agencyservices10 (#99,595)

Don't look back with the past and shameful that you had last time. Go on and live life

DH@twitter (#99,666)

I've never read any of these books. But I love me some Thomas Hardy. Poor Jude.

SuperMargie (#1,263)

I never finished the book. I found my mind wandering and kind of thinking what would happen if she met Patrick Bateman, so I decided to just give up. (I was post-partum and very broke at the time, so maybe I overreacted a bit?)

laurel (#4,035)

@SuperMargie: If there were slashfics like this, I might read some.

@SuperMargie The ability to maintain your enjoyment of Becky Bloomwood strongly correlates with whether you can take more than twenty bucks at a time out of a bodega ATM.

laurel (#4,035)

@Nicole Cliffe@facebook: What if you want to feed the ATM a stray cat?

What?! Claudia Kishi is fantastic. How is dumping a canister of glitter in your hair ever not a good idea?!

@Lindsay Gordon@facebook Absolutely agree. Also, home-made paper mache earrings are the height of jewelery design and nobody will ever convince me otherwise.

Maria (#8,920)

I unapologeticly love these books. It's like watching a horror movie in that they make me scream at the screen/book "No! Stop! Don't go in there!"

lovelettersinhell (#13,711)

She sounds so horrible that, having not read it, I'm wondering if she's supposed to be a modern day Becky Sharp (Oy god I hope I remembered the name right) or if the name is at least a tribute?

hijabeng (#99,782)

Ha, this piece is just priceless.

NightOwl (#11,168)

Well, I've never read these books but I did read her other one, "Can You Keep a Secret?" and I have to say I actually lol'ed while reading it. My Gemini friend went bananas over it, she was rolling in the aisles! Also, the Shopaholic movie blows and is sort of a mindf*ck with the creepy mannequins that move and talk to her.

@NightOwl Okay, you sold me. Is it on Netflix instant?

NightOwl (#11,168)

@Nicole Cliffe@facebook Not instant but it did get one and a half star rating.

oneneatcat (#19,466)

Downton Abbey is AMAZING! I'm so glad it won best mini-series over Mildred Pierce, which was plodding and terrible. I heart Sybil. Well, I heart all of them.

@oneneatcat Being in love with Mr Bates helps too.

oneneatcat (#19,466)

@Nicole Cliffe@facebook Being in love with him is dangerous, as he will undoubtably do something noble to protect you, but never let you know, leaving you in tears as to why he's suddenly cutting himself off or leaving.

Then your whole marriage will be tracking down why he's acting the way he is, dragging him back and saying "Oh, you! You could have told me it was Mittens who broke the priceless vase and not you!"

Yatima@twitter (#12,963)

@oneneatcat He's the anti-Edward Cullen!

beanie (#99,953)

I saw the movie even though I had thrown the book down in disgust after 100 pages or so.

The movie ends with her walking past shops, not purchasing anything, and the MANNEQUINS START CLAPPING. Horrifying.

@beanie Okay, I know I associate everything with Doctor Who, but the first Rose Tyler episode is exactly like that, but with…violence.

M. Peterson@twitter (#100,089)

"She is like a Balrog, but with accessories" BAHAHAHA!

Ellie (#18,264)

I have to say I really like(d) the original couple Shopaholic books (and "Shopaholic and Sister" is kinda OK because Becky actually learns a lesson in it?) but the later sequels are just gross and I'm reviled by Becky's behavior.

BUT! Sophie Kinsella's other books are so good . . . my favorite is The Undomestic Goddess. I think it's genuinely good not just "guiltily" good. And Twenties Girl, Remember Me? and Can You Keep A Secret? are so good too! The funny thing is that her books as Madeline Wickham totally blow (I forget if that's her real name or Sophie is or both are pseudonyms) – they are melodramatic and if the style is supposed to be the source humor, they don't quite achieve it.

Bittersweet (#765)

@Ellie: The Undomestic Goddess is good stuff, and would probably make a much better movie than any of the Shopaholics. That sex scene in the garden with the raspberries! *fans self*

Let's start dream casting now…Emily Blunt as Samantha? Henry Cavill as Nathaniel? Hugh Laurie and Helena Bonham Carter as Eddie and Trish? (Too young?)

parentheses (#100,632)

People kept recommending it to me! I got too stressed out after one chapter and just put it down.

Someone, though. Please address the fashionability thing? I didn't know enough about the designers she was namedropping to tell if it was a Claudia Kishi thing.

Cawendaw (#100,888)

Will someone please help the poor woman in that photo? It's bad enough that she apparently lost her arms in some accident, she doesn't need people gluing random cloth swatches to her neck. And gluing an orange rubber glove to one of them is just cruel!

Sophie Kinsella/trashy British chick lit is totally a guilty pleasure of mine! This quite possibly is because I'm not one of the sorostitutes she writes about, and it provides a lot of schadenfreude.

lobsterhug (#66,323)

@Amanda McNeil@twitter Does Jennifer Green count as trashy? In 2005, I read practically all her published works. It was a sickness.

bitca? (#101,760)

I too went through a trashy British chick lit phase. (Who didn't?) Wendy Holden is lots of fun, with terribly punny titles and a recurring character who is basically the unholy love child of Paris Hilton and Pamela Anderson, but also a bit of a spice girl/WAG. I also once accidentally ordered (seriously, it wasn't even a friend of a friend hypothetically ordered sort of thing, but the fact that it had the same title as the book I meant to order but didn't know the author of) a Louise Bagshawe book that was a great soapy bit of chick lit that combined murder, real estate, Italian counts, British prep schools, romance writers, secret adoptions, Gypsy triplets, sexy Southern Senators and the evils of rap music. The Devil You Know. I laughed and gasped the whole way through. Since I was living in a dorm with tissue paper walls at the time, I'm pretty sure my neighbors thought my weekend was WAY more interesting than it actually was. The one I can't stand, though, is Marion Keyes. Why are all her books so depressing?

Can we do more "classic" trash of recent vintage?

DreamingInGreen (#104,008)

Oh dear god. Someone kept insisting that I would love these books, so I checked out two from the library for a beach vacation. Despite having a near reverence for the library and books in general, I wanted to rip both them apart because I hated Becky THAT MUCH. But of course, that's all I had on my beach break, so I plowed through both of them and despite my increasing anger and hatred. I kept hoping she would learn something or have some sort of genuine comeuppance, but nope. Also, I am still insulted anyone would so heartily recommend them to me.

Gah. This post was like a cathartic group therapy purge for anger I didn't realize I was still holding.

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