There’s a bit in the middle of Mad About the Boy when the agent for Bridget’s screenplay – a modern interpretation of Hedda Gabler set in Queen’s Park – sends her a strange email. “We have a couple of responses on your script,” he writes. “They are passing. The themes are fascinating but they’re wanting more of a romcom feel. I’ll keep trying.” It could be a coincidence, but by this point it reads like a coded SOS from the author. The book is at its best when it is a poignant comic novel about a 51-year-old woman struggling to bring up children after the sudden death of her husband. It is hit-and-miss when it’s about a 51-year-old Bridget Jones who struggles with all the TV remotes and counts nits instead of Chardonnays. But on occasion it becomes a parody of a Richard Curtis film, or even worse an American sitcom, and that of course is v v bad.
So, let’s list disappointing items in manner of slightly desperate 51-year-old channelling Sex in the City, Friends and bad BJ-parody. 1) The infantilising/fabulous best friends: “10:45pm. Doorbell … Was Tom and Jude, both completely plastered, stumbling into the hallway giggling. ‘Mwah! Bridget! You’ve lost SO much weight!’” Jude, who “now practically runs the City” and occasionally says things like “just put a stop order of two million yen at a hundred and twenty-five” to prove it, also appears in Bridget’s kitchen “in her baggie onesie and big fluffy socks”. Isn’t it quite a busy job, running the City? 2) The Americanisation: the smug married school gate parents “patronize”, Bridget “prioritizes” and obsessively chronicles her weight in lbs (no st – v annoying!), and Daniel Cleaver, the randy old goat, constantly wants to talk about her “panties”. 3) The constant texting in effort to look modern: nobody, Bridget, texts their toyboy under the table during a v important meeting about their screenplay. Stop it.
But, that’s all. When smug patronisers asked Joseph Heller why he had never written a novel as good as Catch 22, he used to reply: “Who has?” Helen Fielding has earned the right to say the same. Her newspaper columns, and first novel, defined a generation, changed the vocabulary of singleton life, gently satirised the have-it-all fallacy, and spawned an entire genre of poor imitations that still bore readers today. Having once skewered the embarrassing preoccupations of apparently most of the nation’s women, you can’t do it again. So you have to write a different book.
The best bits of this one are the ones furthest from anything the original Bridget could imagine. A beautiful set-piece spread over a long dark night of the children’s bowels, which ends with a moment of heart-breaking tenderness and the realisation: “Diarrhoea and sick … on vaguely sexual nightie. Resolved to go down to washing machine (ie fridge to get wine).” A laugh-out-loud treatise on the “Rules of Dating” in the internet age. Taking out a friend’s hair extensions after they catch head lice: “A bit like Anne Hathaway dying of a bad haircut in Les Misérables, except more moaning and crying.”
Readers who are parents might relate most to the moments when our heroine curls up in a bunk bed with a nitty child, overwhelmed by love. I choked at the scenes in which her hilariously irritating mother is finally given her story. If you don’t cry when Bridget’s mum suddenly stops “soldiering on” with Una and admits how lonely she is as a widow, you have a heart harder than Daniel Cleaver’s. “It was the first time I’d actually felt Mum’s bouffe,” relates Bridget, as they hug each other on her kitchen floor.
The boy of the title provides comic relief, and the line that perhaps sums up the whole book: “But surely it is not normal to be too vain to put on your reading glasses to nit-comb your toy boy?” But he’s obviously not the new Mark Darcy. If you spot the “new sports teacher” who is “rather like Daniel Craig in appearance” and immediately start counting down to a happy ending, snow, and an uplifting disco soundtrack, you’ve spotted the new Mark Darcy. (That’s not really a spoiler, unless you have never read a Bridget Jones book or seen a romcom.)
What Fielding always did best was use modern frustrations to fondly lampoon a particular sort of vanity and pretentiousness that secretly everyone has. (Come on, what’s the first thing you remember about Chechnya?) She still does. Such as when Jude says: “Bridget. Sleeping with a 29-year-old off Twitter on a second date is not ‘Rather like in Jane Austen’s day’.”
The comic cultural references still hit home, except when the culture she references is Bridget Jones. The themes are fascinating and she’s still funny. She should ignore the passes and keep trying.