When not cavorting with her already-famous toy boy, the “gorgeous and peach-like” Roxby McDuff (aka the Roxster), 51-year-old widow Mrs Bridget Darcy tries her hand at screenwriting. She plans an update of the play she calls Hedda Gabbler, which she imagines Anton Chekhov wrote, but relocated to Queens Park.
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Greenlight Productions even shows an interest in her film. However, Bridget’s agent Brian Katzenberg has to let her down gently: “The themes are fascinating but they want more of a rom-com feel.” Plus, if possible, a setting not in NW6 but on a flash yacht in Hawaii.
Many a true word… As the sturdy Bridget standbys (the to-do lists, the self-reproach, the calculated calories, the media and showbiz parodies) mesh with the pitfalls and pratfalls of mid-life dating in the age of Twitter, texts and Match.com, this third selection from her diaries tears down the middle.
On one side stands the dark-hued comedy of loneliness and grief; on the other, upbeat fantasias of merry widowhood afloat on the social-media cloud. You can see just why Fielding has killed off Mark Darcy on a mission to Darfur, five years before the plot kicks off in 2012. Bridget’s “romantic and original” status as a widow, with little Billy and Mabel left well provided for by ever-prudent Mark, relieves Bridget of everyday worries. It also sidesteps the potential bitterness and disillusion of divorce.
Fielding fashions the helicopter-parent school-gate satire among “over-educated SUV mums” pretty smartly (“Vodka is NOT a good idea for Sports Day, Bridget”). Yet you sense that some of this material has strayed in from another novel – just as the movie-biz absurdities, right down to a sulky starlet called Ambergris Bilk, have an almost early-Martin-Amis tinge. Some readers have already complained about Mrs Darcy’s charmed if desolate life, with the kids’ nits (a running, or rather scratching, joke) more of an anxiety than bills or jobs. You might as well ask to see Sherlock Holmes’s bank statements or check the original Mr Darcy’s grocery budget. Like the Queen, fictional icons and archetypes don’t have to carry cash – but they do have to speak to their readers’ dreams and dreads.
In the former category, the 29-year-old Roxster supplies that “rom-com feel” with his suave but ribald attentions. Bridget rejoices again in “the ecstasy of being touched after so long by someone so beautiful, so young and so good at it”. It can’t last, of course, and it doesn’t. As Bridget muses after a brace of Big Macs washed down with a chocolate shake: “When he’s hot, he’s hot; when he’s not, he’s not; but at least there’s always food.” Never mind: a hunkier saviour waits in the wings, much closer to home than the oddballs’ “sweetie shop” of the dating websites.
From time to time, Mad About the Boy drops, or soars, to another level. Bridget’s bittersweet days with Mabel and Billy focus an unaffected – and unexpected – tenderness. And when Fielding wants to open the locked box of bereavement, she can: “Oh the loneliness – the profiles giving away the months or maybe years of heartbreak and disappointment and insult.”
Then the kitsch glamour of that posh yacht in Hawaii – or, in Bridget’s case, an idyllic Christmas carol concert with a hero much “like Russell Crowe in Gladiator” – distracts us. Grief and despair fade like a hangover, the consoling fantasy assures us. A new chapter in the fairy tale can begin.