Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Here's A Shocker: Chick Lit With Substance

Lisa Daily's debut novel Fifteen Minutes of Shame is the kind of book I don't read in public. Its breezy cover screams CHICK LIT as loudly as a siren; I hate to sound like a snob, but this is a genre I'm embarrassed to be seen reading. Why? Well, it's got a reputation for being substanceless fluff, definitely less-than-literary. So, imagine my surprise when I not only liked this book, but actually considered giving it one of my coveted "A" grades. Pick your jaws up off the table now, and read on ...

The story features 31-year-old relationships expert Darby Vaughn. Not only is she a successful writer, public speaker, and radio host, but she's also married to handsome publicist Will Bradley, generally known as The Perfect Husband. Darby and Will have custody of his two kids from his former marriage to "a formerly sane beauty queen" (6). Even though the kids aren't technically hers, Darby takes care of them full-time and cherishes them as her own. She lives in an exclusive gated community, has a close circle of friends (her Dreamgirls) and legions of fans all over the country. Her life is the very definition of "charmed."

When Darby catches her husband at a gas station in Florida at the exact moment he's supposed to be boarding a plane for Atlanta, she panics. When he lies about his location, she gets angry. When a perusal of his locked desk drawer brings forth a handful of suspicious receipts, she gets paranoid. Could Will really be cheating on her? She's written articles and books on cheating men, wouldn't she have recognized the signs? When Will assuages her suspicions with a rational explanation, she is relieved. Feeling guilty for suspecting him, she heads off on her book tour. All is well until Today show host Matt Lauer confronts Darby with the morning's big news - publicist Will Bradley has filed for divorce, dissolving his current marriage so he can reconcile with his first wife, Gigi Bissanti. When the news sinks in, Darby expels her breakfast all over the chrysanthemums on Matt's coffee table. Live. On national television. Right before she passes out.

By the time Darby comes to, her career has taken a serious plunge down the toilet. Images of her puking on Today play out in living color on news programs, YouTube and newspapers everywhere. The public humiliation tortures her, but the real blow comes when she returns home to find her husband, children (she has been their primary caregiver since Gigi abandoned them for a spot on Hollywood's newest reality show), and whole life has up and gone away. The Dreamgirls encircle Darby, plying her with margaritas and creamy comfort foods. When she finally emerges from her grief, she's ready to follow her agent's advice and "mov[e] on with your life as a fun, fabulous, single girl" (126). So, she hires a killer divorce lawyer, starts a couple "fauxmances" with gorgeous playboys, and stars in a career - enlivening reality dating show.

Finally, her life appears to be back on track, but appearances are decieving. Darby soon finds there is a big difference between being successful and being happy. On a night when she's dressed to the nines, she wishes "that someone who cared about me could see me looking this way" (141). Another day filming her reality show just feels "pitiful and empty" (201). She misses her life, especially the kids. Just to make her life more complicated, Darby finds she's attracted to her lawyer. To make matters even worse, Will calls begging her to reconsider their marriage. He offers her the thing she wants most - "her" kids. But, what will happen to her fragile career, not to mention her life, if she breaks her own advice to "Never stay with a cheater! Never!" (240). Darby adores "her" kids, but can she risk staying with a man she will never trust again? Can she shoot her credibility, thereby destroying her career just to be near kids who aren't even hers? And what about the electricity that shoots through her body every time she touches her "killer" lawyer with a heart of gold? Darby has to make some tough decisions in order to reclaim her life, including the most important one - is it even the life she really wants?

Like I said, this is a fluffy book with deeper issues. At its heart, it is a story about success v. happiness, career v. family, and thriving v. surviving. It's about identity ("Without my family, my house, my career, without all the things I've dedicated my life to over the last several years, who the hell am I?" [84]), misconception

I imagined that married bliss looked a lot like a Pottery Barn catalog, complete with shed-free chocolate labs, beach barbecues with a handsome, adoring husband who rakes in $200K and still makes it home in plenty of time for every family event, and two charming, mannerly children who wipe their feet in the mudroom and play together for hours without conflict in the $900 lemonade stand. (16)

and the truly important things in life.

Of course, Fifteen Minutes of Shame is not without its chick lit fluff. There's a laugh-out-loud funny scene with a gay room service waiter, as well as lots of feel-good female bonding. Dating tips are sprinkled throughout the book. There's also plenty of the requisite male-bashing, male-lusting, and male-loving.

Given all this, the thing that surprised me about the book is how well it is written. It's sharp, funny, and actually very heartwarming. Daily writes what she knows; since she's a real-life relationships expert, she knows exactly what life for a fictional relationships expert would be like. This gives the story a realistic feel, even if certain parts seem a little far-fetched. Daily's writing is surprisingly original (even if her plot is not) - Darby's mind "starts whirling, with horrible, panicky thoughts spewing out like Lotto balls" (21), her city is "a town full of social climbers and no ladder" (96), and a party host's decor is "often imitated, always boring" (96).

As for negatives, there aren't that many, really. The characters in Fifteen Minutes of Shame are familiar, some (like Will) border on cliche. As I mentioned before, the book's plot gets a bit far-fetched, while remaining absolutely predictable. There were some irritating scenes, like the one in which Darby decides to start dating publicly (not seriously - just to attract media attention) before her divorce is final, then professes absolute shock when her lawyer reminds her that tramping around could ruin her case. Duh. I also could not understand why Darby works so hard to repair her marriage when she doesn't seem to miss Will at all after the breakup. She laments the loss of the children, but Will? Not so much. There just didn't seem to be much of a spark between them. The book was also filled with references to current events (Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, Brittney Spears' flashing incident) and pop culture (YouTube, Google, Starbucks, etc) which will easily date it (not that I expect it will become a classic, but still ...).

All in all, though, Fifteen Minutes of Shame is a fun, witty romp that actually hits on some serious issues. Despite her somewhat glamorous life, Darby Vaughn is an Everywoman that readers will relate to and sympathize with. Her life makes for fast, entertaining reading that you might actually consider showing in public. If you're at the beach. Under an umbrella. Where no one can see how much you're enjoying chick lit, that most embarrassing of genres.

Grade: B
(Book Image from Barnes & Noble)

7 comments:

  1. I no longer have a lot of shame when it comes to what I read in public. Being a lawyer is enough proof of deep thought to cover a multitude of fluff. I hope. :)

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  2. Thanks for all the recommendations! And all your links with more! I feel like I've won the lottery. I'm going to link you!

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  3. Wow...I am floored! Thank you for reviewing Lisa's book, Susan, and giving it flying colors! I love chick lit, personally. As long as they have substance...gotta totally agree with you on that. Well, I'm very pleased with the review and I know Lisa will be, too!

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  4. I actually did get a very nice email from Lisa Daily thanking me for the review.

    She said she cried when she saw the cover of Fifteen Minutes of Shame! Apparently, though, most reviewers came to the same conclusion that I did: the book actually has quite a lot of substance to it.

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  5. C'mon, Robin, you're the one who sticks Post-It notes all over the covers of Colleen Gleason's books!! Admit it - you do have some shame. Not a lot, but some :)

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  6. This sounds like a book I would enjoy. I've added it to my booksfree list. Thanks for the review!

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  7. Wow that is a really well-written review! You pretty much hit the nail on the head. As you saw from my review, I felt pretty much the same way about this book. Thanks for stopping by my blog.

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