And they all lived once upon a time

Yesterday, after a morning of errands in a particularly nice area near me, I stopped off at my local(ish) bookshop, which is a small but popular place in the middle of a mostly-residential street. It’s tiny, but contains all the good books; the people who run it known them all and will chat at length about them; and they have a coffee machine and cake. Chocolate Guinness cake, yesterday, so I ordered tasty things, borrowed a pen, and sat outside for half an hour to make lists in my notebook and generally pretend I was in a nice movie for a few minutes. Once I ran out of lists to make, I bothered to look at the window display and there, as in all bookshop windows this week, was Helen Fieldings’ new Bridget Jones book, Mad About the Boy, which I’d temporarily forgotten existed, what with Eleanor Catton winning the Man Booker Prize and so forth. (Obviously that’s what distracted me. Shut up.)

I’ve talked about Bridget Jones’ Diary and its general effect on my life before, and when the subject of Mad About the Boy came up with a friend I said, ‘Of course I’ll be reading it’. But now I’m not so sure. This year I’ve had a bit of a run of reading sequels to classic chick lit (often without realising they were sequels until I picked them up), and not one of them has left me really satisfied.

I hesitate to use the term chick lit because it sounds as though these books are too fluffy to be taken seriously, but the books I’m thinking of  – Jennifer Weiner’s Good in Bed and Certain Girls; India Knight’s Life on a Plate and Mutton – really aren’t fluffy. Yes, they’re funny; yes, they contain fashion and love lives. But they also address basic unhappiness and family problems with depth and originality.

It is with resignation that I must admit that, despite my fairly pragmatic approach to real life, when it comes to books and stories, the fairy tale ending got its claws into me. Even though I relish the history and future of rewriting traditional fairytales, and have always been uncomfortable with the Happily Ever After in them being applied to life (the focus on the wedding, but not the marriage; wanting babies, but not teenagers), TV series like Grimm, Once Upon a TimeRed: Werewolf Hunter and the film Hansel and Gretel: Witchhunters all tickle me – not necessarily because they’re good, but because I love the continuation of those old, terrifying tales in the same way I love Anne Sexton’s amazing collection of disturbing poems, Transformations (my copy of which I’ve just realised is missing. Did I lend it to you? Can I have it back? I need to stop handing my books out to people). There are consequences to the events, and well-known trope characters suddenly have far more to them than just crowns and avarice and poverty.

'I know you, I met with you once upon a dream...'

‘I know you, I walked with you once upon a dream…’

But, oddly and somewhat hypocritically, when it comes to Novels set in Life, I like the Happily Ever After endings. Or Sadly Ever After. I want the endings, either way. I liked being able to close a book with a sigh and know that those characters are, for me, exactly where I left them, a little older, a little wiser. It’s even more odd that I have this problem in the context of books that are commonly dismissed as modern day fairy tales for women.

Coming back to Cannie Shapiro of Good in Bed 13 years later, and realising that she did not conquer her problems, but instead has become somewhat staid and projects her issues onto her child, I felt a bit cheated. I didn’t recognise the Cannie of the first book. She had become prickly where she used to be nice, and softer where she used to have devastating comebacks, and I just didn’t like her as much. This, by the way, is not a comment on the writing itself. Cannie remains a strongly written character. It says far more about my inability to accept character developments past Happily Ever After –I don’t likethat she didn’t stay in a happy little bubble. Coming from the other end, I read India Knight’s Mutton first (without realising it was a sequel) and THEN read My Life on a Plate (and have not read Comfort and Joy, which is the filling for that book sandwich). While I very much enjoyed both books, and even though I read them backwards, the same thing happened. It sucked, a bit, finishing My Life on a Plate and knowing that actually, for Clara, there were more problems to come.

Maybe the problem here is that I like reading about going-to-be-happy characters. As chick lit, they are ripe for projecting the fantasy that that might happen in real life. Hey, it’ll be quirky, but eventually it’ll be good. By knowing the story continues, those happy futures are null and void, and any projection forces a recognition of unhappiness rather than of potential.

When I was younger (and living with my parents so they dealt with everything; or else was at university, and yes, studying and working to pay rent, but still very much shielded from having to deal with the adult world and knowing that I was putting off getting a ‘real’ job in the ‘real’ world ) reading about being older and the wacky hijinks of being single and getting life sorted out was fun – because the characters in this books did, eventually, get their lives sorted, as far as I could tell.  There was an endgame and a Happily Ever After, and for whatever reason, where I couldn’t buy into that in stories where magic and princes are involved, I absolutely did where the writing is supposed to be a reflection of life. D’oh.

Now I’m in my 30s and I get that the hijinks aren’t that wacky in real life, and I don’t want to deal with drama and get annoyed when it happens anyway, and get even more annoyed when people try to create drama where there doesn’t need to be any, because isn’t life hard enough? I’ve reached an age where I don’t feel the need to make an effort to be liked by everyone or to waste time on people I don’t like.

I suppose what I don’t like having confirmed by these 15-years-later sequels is that actually life never gets easier. There’s no point where everything is sorted and you can just get on with the business of being happy; and, yes, you do have to keep trying to make the right decisions and dealing with the fucking up; and you always will have to work hard to feel content; and, actually, the closest you’ll come to living happily ever after is when you accept that you never will.

So, since it turns out that sometimes I really, genuinely, want escapism from books (and especially these books), maybe I’ll give Bridget Jones: Mad About The Boy a miss. At least for now.

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