I love Helen Fielding: I love everything she has ever done. In fact, I owe my career to her, starting in the days when Andy Kennedy and I used to sneak The Independent in to my office and sit guffawing about whatever Bridget Jones was up to once a week, instead of working. She's a funny, honest, incredibly talented writer; a huge comic talent.
But poor old Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination doesn't work in the slightest. Actually, it never really has a chance. For some reason, Fielding's great gift of spot-on observation, of seeing the world more sharply than anyone else, whether in an African disaster centre or a north London wine bar, has been chucked out of the window in favour of what even her most fervent admirers would admit has never been her strongest point: plot. And boy, is there a lot of it.
Of course, it may be my fault: I just don't get this book. OK: let's say your great aim in life is to become a serious foreign affairs journalist, which is avowedly Olivia's. You have the journalistic fortune to be an eyewitness at a terrible terrorist atrocity. Do you turn this event into the opportunity of a lifetime and aim for the Pulitzer or do you call your editor, make one bad pun and, er, catch the next plane out? And, barring personal dismemberment, what editor in the world would let you leave?
I don't understand the motivations of the baddie. I don't understand why he is painted as purporting to be an incredibly sophisticated Frenchman and keeps talking about expensive wines, then tries to open a bottle of champagne with a corkscrew. Why does he say "Western technology, for all its promise, is designed to make a fool of the Arab" - about a speedboat?
I don't understand why the sole black character is called Winston and all the Arabs are called Muhammed. I don't understand why Olivia is kidnapped about nine times but each times thinks it's quite good fun. Who is Kate and why? And I have double-checked, but I still can't work out why one guy gets his head bitten off by a shark and is never mentioned again. And what about the ricin?
There seems to be so much missing. Fielding is brilliant on trendy hotels, style writing and the shallowness of Hollywood in a way that leaves you gasping for more. In one scene, the baddie has inexplicably decided to hold auditions for a film that never happens or is ever mentioned again. (Why? I don't understand.) The stupid, greedy schmoozers, the pumped-up starlets, the wide-eyed beautiful boys and girls: they are all there waiting for their chance at stardom. Olivia looks at the director and thinks, "How come he hadn't noticed the script was total crap?" How is it crap? Why? After the classic Bridget/Colin Firth interview scene in Edge of Reason, who would be funnier than Fielding to write and audition the bad film script for us? Why won't she?
When Olivia finally becomes a spy in chapter 43 - roughly 39 chapters too late - "She was rushed through an intense programme of training in tradecraft, weaponry, desert survival and specialist equipment." Now, quite apart from whatever the hell tradecraft might be, surely there must be tons of opportunities for comedy in spy training? But no, it's straight on to some other hotel room and far too many boring bits about diving.
Olivia is quite a scary character: the opposite to Bridget, she "decided to get slim and stayed there". She can tell when a man has fallen for her from a raised eyebrow across a crowded room, which is practically a superpower. And when she drowns people she thinks, "Ha ha!" But she's fun, too; wry and smart, interesting and funny. You like her. Which is why it's such a rotten shame she only gets incomprehensible things to do. Now Fielding lives in Los Angeles, Olivia should move there too. She should live with Jack Bauer from CTU (in 24), who could teach her a thing or two about plotting. Then we'll have some fun.
Jenny Colgan's 'Working Wonders' is published by HarperCollinsReuse content