To continue on the unsung merits of the lowbrow literature… I’m not a chick-lit fan, but I sometimes wander round the stacks of popular fiction for young women, along the lines of The devil wears Prada, The nanny diaries, How does she do it, etc.. To me, it’s akin to eating a Big Mac once in a while: it won’t do you any good if you keep a steady diet of it, but sometimes reading such a book takes you for a fun and quick ride, fills you up and makes you feel good, even if it’s not gastronomic fare.
Of course, expectations are different. If you choose a light book, you shouldn’t be arrested by stereotypical characters, unrealistic plot, romantic clichés and Hollywood-style, slow-motion happy endings. It’s all part of the deal: you read it for the entertainment, not to discover a revolutionary idea. But the writing shouldn’t be too sloppy, and the pleasure of reading such a book relies a lot on pace and energy. If there are too many low moments, the flaws become too obvious and the whole thing becomes more ridiculous than funny (same as when you tell a joke – tell it too slowly and nobody will laugh). In short, chick-lit can’t afford a boring page.
Within these limits, The Undomestic Goddess works very well. The heroin is a high-flying lawyer so completely absorbed in her professional life that she has forgotten what breathing means. Her bubble bursts the day where she makes a big mistake. In a panic, she flees the office, and by a highly improbable chance, gets into a house where housekeepers are being interviewed. Mistaken for another applicant, she lies and gets the job.
How does it work? We are led to see how someone completely inapt at everyday chores discovers what cooking and cleaning mean. At the very beginning, hilarious scenes present the lawyer’s warped view of the world. It’s dangerous ground, as a wrong positioning could easily alienate the main character from the readers. Who would normally commiserate with a lawyer earning big bucks, working 70 hours a week and wearing a black Armani suit? A few scenes at the beginning make her look pathetic and sincere, i.e. lovable. We are led to conclude that her parents have pushed her into this career and not her own ambition. We laugh at her denial that something is wrong in her life (I had to laugh out loud when she is offered a day at a spa and she tries to sneak her blackberry into her paper underwear, later to pretend that it’s a sex toy!). We laugh at the miscomprehension between the vapid employer and the false housekeeper. We laugh at slapstick scenes where she tries to bake or iron and messes things up. Part of this laugh derives from our secret satisfaction that we may not have high-flying careers, but at least we know how to prepare a sandwich. We expect her to fail and be discovered, but every time she’s saved by a new twist. There is a lot of energy in these scenes and mixing the different types of comic prevents any boring repetition.
There are a few mushier parts when she falls in love and by the two thirds of the book, when you get a thwarted romance, an agonizing choice to make between 2 careers, and a financial thriller plot all mixed together, things tend to spin out of control and be less zany.
But what I think very clever, is that the author deters any upcoming reproach before we’ve time to develop it. If you think that her hidden agenda is to put women out of the workplace and back home in the kitchen, she ridicules this idea quickly enough. If you think that some characters are vapid and foolish, she acknowledges it readily.
To be sure, The Undomestic Goddess doesn’t pretend to be something different that a light, entertaining book, and it perfectly fits the bill. Somehow, I felt that the cover was patronizing female readers with its pastel colors and coy little hearts. It deserves something rosy, but still better than that.