Finding Myself By Toby Litt

Chick-lit meets 'To the Lighthouse' with lashings of sex and gin
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Is there a more maligned literary genre than chick-lit? From its cartoon covers, down through the excitable, sugar-rush prose to its soft centre of reactionary values, it always seemed destined to end up as the free gift on the front of Cosmopolitan. And yet - its greatest sin - it sells. Its readers make up a huge chunk of British book buyers, and, damn it, they should be reading something better, more improving.

Even chick-lit's detractors would probably argue that it needs no parody (ignore it, and it might go away), let alone rehabilitation. Yet both are on offer in Toby Litt's hugely enjoyable novel.

Litt has invented a successful chick-lit novelist, Victoria About, who plans a new book loosely emulating To The Lighthouse. She will invite a dozen people - friends, acquaintances and unknowns - to spend a month in a lovely big house by the seaside. They will get a holiday, waited on hand and foot. She, from their exploits, interaction and characters, will get a novel.

What we are reading, though, is not the finished novel but, for reasons that become clear as the month progresses, merely the contents of Victoria's laptop, presented as the editor's annotated draft. We get diary entries recording the daily goings-on, random brain dumps, and rough stabs at descriptive passages, all adorned with the caustic notes of her editor, Simona (also, with her husband, a guest at the house).

With her cast further including her sister and boyfriend, her too-perfect schoolfriend Ingrid, plus husband and 11-year-old daughter, and Cecile Dupont, an older friend bristling with enigma and style, Victoria hopes she has the makings of a sophisticated, dynamic gathering. To the Lighthouse may be the blueprint, but Victoria is after something more than Woolf's bluestocking symphony on creativity and gender relations. She is a pro-active heroine in the mould of Austen's Emma, albeit as interested in match-breaking as match-making. Bedhopping and bust-ups, not betrothals and petty social faux pas, are the order of the day.

This is not Litt's first exercise in ventriloquism and formal play. His last novel, deadkidsongs, was a gory childhood yarn told by four prepubescent narrators, encased in a filing-cabinet framing device. Finding Myself is simpler and more successful: not chick-lit deconstructed, but partially assembled. Litt is smart enough not to ape the genre's plots or characters - which would have made for a cheaper, shallower book - so much as its mindset.

He certainly has the style down pat. Victoria's prose runs from the trite ("He bedded me like tulip bulbs in November - deeply, and at regularly spaced intervals") to the appropriately naff ("The waves from this distance sound very like the moment one drops the lemon slice into a tumbler of really fresh gin and tonic") and she even has her crowning epiphany to round off the novel, eating a bowl of porridge.

In showing us Victoria's work in progress, Litt has exposed the soft underbelly of the writer. Her notes-to-self to "fill this out", "cut this" and "do some Benjamin Britten research when I get back: pretend I know all about him" let slip the mask of infallibility every finished novel gives its author. The gag of having paragraphs or whole pages crossed through with a curt "pretentious beyond belief" from Simona is an enjoyable one, especially when these passages show us Victoria valiantly struggling to break out of her generic constrictions.

For all these post-modern high jinks, though, Litt doesn't neglect to include a story. Finding Myself is expertly plotted, with a series of intriguing spanners dropped into the works (a ghost, a vicar, a tabloid newspaper... I will say no more) whenever Victoria and her friends risk becoming boring.

The novel easily justifies Litt's inclusion on Granta's "Best of Young British" list. That it does not confuse "serious" with "difficult" is only one of its accomplishments. Its sole flaw, by contrast, is its presentation: hardback, and priced as such. It's only when it appears as a mass-market paperback, on cheaper paper and, hopefully, with a much tackier cover, that it will reach the audience that truly deserves it.